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

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A weekly look at process and work in progress.




december 14
      

      Waning moon, the holidays are catching up with the work, it's going to just get more complicated to get anything done for a while. I always get kind of a sense of impending doom about this time of year, trying to look at that and be more optimistic. The wine fairy struck this week, this is always unexpected but incredibly nice, a client who sends Italian wine at a level I can otherwise only dream about. We tried the Le Trame 2010 Chianti Classico this week, a festive labyrinth of gentile complexity. Was put in the spirit as well by a carol service at an old Mennonite church in the area, this was really interesting, not the original church on the site but an a simple and lovely building from 1770. Lots of harmony by the congregation, the overall feeling was innocent but quite firm about the redemptive power of peace, and its cosmic inevitability. I guess in the final analysis I believe that but would sure like to see more of it soon. It has often occurred to me that the architects of this experience may have underestimated the appeal of negativity, especially the concept of the holy war, of fighting for the right. Who needs to fight fair when God is on your side? Sometimes I wish there was more active help or guidance towards unity, perhaps not angels directing traffic but more than a rainbow. Of course in that case, it wouldn't be the lesson we learned all on our own. And that level of responsibility does seem to be focal here. Even though the Quakers got ahold of me early, I've had a lot of issues letting go of the urge to fight. There are just so many opportunities. A book that really helped this past year was Journey of Souls: Case Studies of Life Between Lives by Micheal Newton. He was a therapist doing hypnotic regression to heal illness and came across a very interesting world. It establishes that the soul's basic purpose is to develop integrity, often under challenging circumstances. As someone who grew up in the Sixties and still hopes that promise will be fulfilled, it is sometimes hard to think about what certain people are "getting away with" here. Can you think of anyone who is clearly guilty who is not going to jail? Oh, more than one? This book helped me realize that, in larger terms, no one gets away with anything. It's not that we are punished, but that we are all, in the deepest sense, accountable. Relatively overcast week for here, plugged away on some older work without anything too earth-shattering happening, and, importantly, did get one Christmas present underway.



      

      Went back to a really simple putty this week, wanted to visit that territory again to see what it had to offer after a reasonable hiatus. Used some slightly thicker hand-refined linseed oil and chalk, one part oil to two parts chalk. The thicker oil has more wetting power and makes a much denser putty, used this stringy stuff in the paint at one part putty to four parts paint. So, a slight overall increase in saturation, a light overall decrease in chromatic strength. This paint had a nice balance of stickiness and mobility, and made decent painterly detail, see the last image of this post for the general look. I don't think this is going to replace the idea of a putty with a little added starch or egg or glue size, but it's always good to simplify now and then. Even if it seems like I've been there before, there's often more to be found.



      

      When I was at the Met, I saw their version of Soap Bubbles by Chardin, there's another one at the National Gallery that's a little more colourful, slightly more space in the composition, possibly the second version. In life the Met's version is really dominated by a kind of weimaraner brown. At first thought it might have been a particular earth colour, but I'd never seen it. Then it occurred to me that he might have mixed a neutral midtone from the four positions of the tetrachromatikon. So I tried this, and there it was. This approach is a variation of the complex biscuit coloured ground seen in Van Dyck's study of Princess Elizabeth and Princess Anne, a colour which makes the more simple colours laid on top of it hold together more. In the Met's Chardin, this colour was pretty dominant, and I wondered if the work had been underpainted with it as well.



      

      Copy of Constable's first study for the Hay Wain, an image I've always found fascinating, 1820, 5x7 inches. Did this when I had a cold a few years ago and never felt it was quite right, was in the mood for it again and cleaned it up. 7x10 inches, oil on gessoed panel.



      

      Did a study of this image long ago that I liked, but which had too much colour in it. The mood is always a tricky balance in this type of landscape. Tried for a lower chroma version of this, also wanted to see if a certain laid paper I had from Zecchi could be sized and gessoed for oil studies. The paper didn't really work, but I like this lower chroma approach to the image, may make a slightly larger version next. About 6.25x8.75 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      There are several of these small studies floating around in various stages of incompletion, from images taken on various summer afternoons in Vermont. Softened the colour somewhat, simplified the forms somewhat, like the overall quality of the right side of the road more than the left, probably some surgery needed in the trees and clouds there. This is still a little obvious, have a smaller version of this, somewhere, that's better, but that "better" may not be relevant to this one. About 11x14 inches, oil on gessoed linen.



      

      Very local landscape from the Spring, this had some aspects I liked but the composition didn't quite hold together, some of the colour was a little vivid for me. Red yellow and green, the other basic triad, often used in older painting. Had looked at it long enough to know how to fix at least most of it, this has a nice overall sense of unity now, just needs a little adjustment in the upper right, then another committed layer of juicy paint. About 11x15 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      An older still life that had gotten a little too detailed, sort of fussy, made it flatter on it's way to somewhere slightly different. There are a few of these, based on pictoral ideas that are older, but might be brought more in line with what's going on now. The first thing is to make the old idea go away. 14x20 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Only new one this week, that darn cat who wakes me up at five in the morning by purring in my ear. Hopefully a Christmas present, got four layers on it, back and forth between warmer and cooler, ended on cooler, you can see the warmer background coming through. It feels launched, has an overall feeling of her calm intensity, that inscrutable feline sang froid. Started out with a pretty simple palette, but this got better when I reduced the colour as much as possible. The surface is still sort of lumpy, don't want more detail so much as the sense of this particular being. When a system is close it's easy to overshoot the right spot in attempting to make it better. Just a little more oil in this particular putty might be all that's needed here, a little more saturation and fusion. 6x12 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



december 7
      

Week of the full moon, a real rouser, lots of energy flying around, not always in the most organized way. Went to NYC last week-end, to the Met and Moma, stayed at a tiny apartment in the Village, I'd never experienced the Village so that was fun to get a glimpse of. I'd never been to the Met when the Rembrandts were open, either, so that was really a treat. Rembrandt has a way of making other painters look like they're painting lite instead of light, even in the most tight portraits there's always a kind of philosophical spin, an inscrutable mix of New Testament and Book of Job. A room full of these paintings is an intense place. The reproductions of Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer don't do it any kind of justice, they tend to make it too bright, and somehow too sentimental. There's a wonderful sense of volume in the space itself, the painting has tremendous gravity without being woeful or sad. The other one I'd always wanted to see was the Velasquez portrait of his assistant, Juan de Pareja. This has much more of the quality of a study in life than in reproductions, it is more casual, even messy in places, which of course I loved. Visited the Vermeers again, this time by daylight, the balance of colour in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher was different, the predominant ultramarine less violet. Around the corner is the Lawrence Portrait of Elizabeth Farren, again a little more elegant in daylight, a nice balance to the more serious work, life is about fun too, and painted with a deft combination of freshness and empathy. I wasn't sure what to expect from the Matisse cut-outs, I'd always loved them as a kid but have also seen a lot of Matisse oil paintings that have not aged well, most recently at the Barnes, these need help, are always altered significantly in reproduction. So, I kind of went in hoping not to be disappointed by the difference between the original conception and the way the work presented. This made the actual show that much more of a revelation. The rooms are set up in chronological order so you can follow his progress as he works out what the technique can do. The work itself was just stunning, the technique of gouache on paper looked great. The colours themselves are bright as a rule, uncut, but varied by the intensity of the application, which was by hand, and of course the saturation is low compared to oil paint, kind of humble or inviting. Beyond this, there is something really unusual in these. The cut-out was apparently something Matisse worked with for preliminary studies, but when he was diagnosed with cancer, and apparently waiting to die, he began to work with it exclusively. So, these are beyond any of the temporal concerns that so often become a part of contemporary work, there is in fact an overwhelming sense of someone making art as if their life depended on it. I won't bludgeon you with superlatives, but if you are sympathetic to this body of work, this is really a show that is worth seeing. Then ended up the week downtown on First Friday to see a show of work by a local painter I've always been interested in, Giovanni Casadei. The link takes you to the whole show, the reproductions are a little different, not as much punch on the one hand, finesse on the other, but you can still get a sense of the both thoughtful and colourful style he's exploring in still life.



      

Have been working with a specific putty formula for a long time now, little variation except what happens naturally from mixing something with measuring spoons, rather than a gram scale. This formula contained a little starch gel and a reasonable amount of pre-polymerized oil. Hand-refined oil is very different than stand oil or burnt plate oil, the opposite, in fact, in that it adds to density and thixotropy, decreases leveling. This putty made paint with a goopy density that was quite controllable, logical for getting at the essence, rather than the detail. But I began to wonder if it was too saturated, so went to slightly leaner formulations this week. These are more mobile, in addition to being less dense. I started working with the chalk and oil approach since 2007, and the technique still continues to evolve. I don't think this is necessary, I mean, I'm not recommending that you, too, go down this particular road, but it's interesting that there's so much to find in terms of paint behavior within a relatively simple equation.



      

At this point, having made some paint with four year old hand-refined linseed oil, it does seem like the key to the behavior of older paint is the behavior of hand-refined oil, this is an inherently thixotropic system. Again, I don't think this is necessary to make art, but it does create a larger frame of reference in terms of what the paint can do. Lots of painters want to turn modern paint into older paint. While traditional ingredients like chalk and egg are helpful, the simplest way to do this is to make the paint with aged or slightly preheated oil. Again, this is not everyone's cup of tea, but if it is yours, you can get really high quality pigments now from Kremer or Natural Pigments, much higher overall than when I started out with this. Jedwards in Boston has an organic cold-pressed linseed oil that's been refined, not as much snap as a hand-refined oil, but non-yellowing. If you want to refine your own oil, Jedwards has a nice price on gallons, there's also Azure Standard on the West Coast. An inexpensive oil to try this out with is the Jarrow nutritional oil, available in quarts online. You can use oil that's out of date, from a dented can store, but beware of additives in bargain oils. And please steer clear of really really cheap oils that are supposedly cold-pressed and organic, such as Dr. Adorable, people have reported big problems with these. If you live in Europe, you may have a local source of cold-pressed linseed or walnut oil, these small presses are ideal. If you want to investigate this type of oil in North America, Canadian painter Thomas Hirsz is offering some very interesting, very high quality oils, including his version of something I use every day, hand-refined linseed oil that is slightly thickened. The difference is that Hirsz also presses the oil himself without heat. I'm in the process of refining some of these oils, and they are very interesting indeed.



      

First new painting in a while, first new painting on a panel in several months, this is a way of working that I like but it is more formal, tended to stunt the process. Or maybe that was me who tended to stunt the process. Yes, that sounds more accurate, doesn't it? A lot of things have changed since the last one of these began, saw this clearly in terms of the smaller scale for the object but thought it would be brighter. And maybe it will be. But I like the integration of the colour now as well, I've always really enjoyed referencing older painting without getting too serious about it. The slightly leaner putty was more mobile, meaning more curvy, I'd like to keep that part going forward, paint that is a little more expressive without getting into that over the top Russian kind of bravura. Pretty far along for one layer, the ground was cooperative, not to tight, not too loose, this comes from adding a little silica to the glue gesso, a physical effect, not actual absorbency, something from the Rembrandt research, they have found sand in his ground. Some housekeeping in terms of stuff like the tableline and the topography of the flower, but I've learned this is secondary, even tertiary, to getting a sense of the colour and form that feels emotionally right, whatever "right" means in a given context. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

Decided to continue with new starts, this one was on a panel with a ground I knew was absorbent, but it turned out to be really absorbent. On the one hand, this allowed a tremendous amount of paint to go on, on the other, there wasn't a lot of finesse possible. Or maybe the finesse had to occur in a different way. Cleaned this up a little the next day, got more of the peony's personality going. It's in pretty good shape for a first layer, again a little more colour may be a good idea. I used to try to muscle these through to completion regardless, alla prima or death, and it was death often enough, so now I tend to look for as much essence as possible first, the emotional part. This tends to work better for me than something that is more formally perfect, but with less feeling. As usual, the more absorbent ground was a mixed blessing, looking forward to a next layer on this that will be a little more normal. 12.5x15 inches, oil on gessoed canvas over panel.



nov 30
      

      Waxing moon, felt positive but was also sick. Did a little work but it all looks sort of off somehow. Would like to develop the landscape work next more in the most recent manner, did a test of that idea but it was inconclusive. So, as usual, nothing to do when you're sick but get well. Had a very nice Thanksgiving with friends, a lot to be thankful for. This time of year is typically the energy nadir for me, more than the actual solstice in December, just have to be patient, stay focused. For the first time since the materials project began in 2002, it feels like there's a clear path forward for the work.



nov 23
      

      Felt like a bowl of lead this morning, couldn't do the news until later today, am still fighting off a cold or flu, so this is going to be brief. Always interesting how words are sometimes there, there's something important to communicate just the right way, but then there are times, as when one is proto-ill, when they seem sort of extraneous. Everyone has their favorite preventive measures, usually I do this with an echinacea, goldenseal, and osha blend from Vermont, but I ran out of it, have been using grapefruit seed extract instead, had forgotten how effective this is. There's a lot to be said for attitude as well, projecting health, not illness, or the fear thereof, into the future. A pretty ugly end to the moon, couldn't do much, continued to concentrate on resurrecting older work. At this point I'm pretty sold on the idea of using a little bit of something aqueous to seize the paint, have run through the various candidates and understand their different behaviors to at least some extent. Not that there's going to be a pop quiz, but I wanted to be thorough. This week did a little work with straight paint modified with thicker oil for some older smooth surface work. For the first time in quite a while, I was using colour at close to full strength, usually it's cut at least twenty-five percent with a chalk putty. It was interesting to work with hi-test, a nice change, something to keep in mind.



      

      The day of the new moon is always interesting, I sometimes try to have new ideas but they are rarely new enough. This was plan B that day, a layer on a left over from 2001. A series of work where they were begun from life and finished in straight paint if the alla prima layer didn't gel. So the remainders, while dear in their own primitive way, are just too primitive at this point. This was fun because I got enough paint on it to really change it, and I used a reference without getting too hung up about it. The colour of this was also fun to develop. There are so many levels of integration with positive, negative, and neutral colour, for a long time I felt sure I had the right approach, just not enough experience or skill with the system. This painting feels like the beginning of a new orbital somehow. I've had this type of intuitive confidence before, but not keeping so many different colour concepts in the air. Not done, but closer to where I'd like things to go: intuitive integration of the paint, the light, and the feeling. About 10.5x 14 inches, oil on gessoed panel.



november 16
      


      A little bit of a cold snap this week, including a little snow one night. Waning moon, new moon on the 22nd. This is historically a slower time for me but that's relative to the general increase in pace here compared to Vermont. Did layers on assorted older still life work, happy with where things went in terms of the work, some fruition, more by showing up and holding on than overt inspiration. I've been thinking about how the process relates to breathing. In the past I tended to focus on the inbreath, but expelling what's been used up is just as important: it makes room for what wants to happen next. It's getting easier to let things change, and that feels good. Before, at a certain point, I would try to finish something, mostly because it looked like it might be possible. Now I'm just changing them until I like them better. This has to do with the colour balance typically, a feeling not a formula. When I like them enough, it's much easier to finish them. This makes sense, but tends to get submerged in the weekly fray. The weekly fray then turns into the yearly fray. For the last few years in Vermont, I really didn't know the next step, only that I was learning a lot about part of the answer, but not very much about the whole answer. Now it seems like the learning is becoming more balanced.



      


      Stuck with the same approach this week of a small amount of a rich and thixotropic putty added to the paint. I'm learning more about exactly how to set this up: not too tight, not too loose. Found the box of baby food jars my friend Daryl gave me before I left Vermont at long last, went through all the paint I'd made to get a feeling for what I have and don't have in the handmade department. When I got here there was so much going on that I went back to the Blockx earth colours, but at this point my hope is to phase them out and use my own paint again. There's nothing wrong with them, but maybe they're a little too perfect. An interesting comparison is the paint from Natural Pigments, some lovely earth colours and nothing but pigment and oil, a little more, well, natural.



      


      The studio is slowly getting more organized. Oil aging in an east facing window along with some work that are drying. I don't have that much space now, but it's higher quality space, should work out well as long as I stay organized.



      


      Work in progress typically gets cropped to the edges here, but this is how it looks in the studio. Well, one look. Sometimes I work on a piece of linen so I can move the edges around. Then the linen gets mounted on canvas before putting it on panel, this gives the end result more breadth, makes it look less mechanically flat. Made this one a little softer and adjusted the shape of the flowers. After a few thin passes, it feels like the colour is in a good place. Next this will get a layer of denser paint. About 13x14 inches.



      


      Something older that began with a great deal of paint, the do or die approach. Under these circumstances, I almost always end up wanting more, so this one has been through some changes since. Put a somewhat juicier layer on it than usual, mostly because this type of paint evens out the surface, and this one was still pretty uneven. But this type of paint also enables more fusion, more complex edges. It's also a type of paint that makes me sort of nervous, a little too slick. So there are dual aspects of that to consider going forward. Not done, but in it's most interesting place yet. 11x14 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      


      This is something older that I had more or less given up on, the lead blossom had grown out of proportion to the rest of the composition without being resolved, it looked hopelessly dorky. But recently I realized the new paint would fix this, in fact, pretty easily. Fixing things is a pain in a way, especially since there are so many more evolved beginnings around now, including one of this image. But it's also important to follow the energy, and sometimes, especially during a waning moon, it wants to go back and fix things, do a recovery loop in time. So, this is the second salvage layer on this, and it has a nice quality in life, not too fussy, a little more essential in the way the paint is depicting the form. This is due to the rheology of the white, which I fiddle with a lot in these. So, abandoning this for the next version was one solution, but it's also interesting, maybe more interesting, to find a solution within the existing problem. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      


      Started this over the summer, the beginning was pretty strong, but didn't feel totally resolved. So, it went through a few layers where I tried to nibble the original idea forward. This almost never works. Can't say never, but, almost never. So, this is pretty lumpy right now, but I'm learning that, when something is in transit, just let it go. This is not in the right century yet. Maybe the issue is it's a century that didn't actually happen on our timeline, something that triangulates between 20, 19, and 17. I think maybe the next thing to do is to put this on a panel, that extra level of physical commitment always seems to create more clarity about the destination. About 14x16 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      


      Another one that suffered the curse of the good beginning, got a little frustrated working on this but feel it's going somewhere now. The most interesting thing about these is looking for the mysterious portal to the next step. This is always a strange dull gray colour that makes me go, "Well, duh!" The hardest thing for me in terms of colour has been to find a way to integrate blue with the palette, but it's getting there. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      


      Another version of the Austin roses image. There have been several of these that didn't work out, this is probably the best in terms of composition. Orange is a little saturated here, but in life this is going somewhere I like. A little small, probably the next one I'll start at the 14x16 inch scale. About 12x12.75 inches, oil on gessoed panel.



      


      Started this in 2006, something that has had about two dozen thin layers of paint over the years, has been close to finished several times. Impossible to photograph, but this isn't bad. I'm not that interested in this way of painting any more, but it's fun to ask what else might happen with a few of these smooth ones now and then, and it would be fun to finish this. There's something else I want, but not that much, would like a little more from the edges. 11x14 inches, oil on gessoed panel.



november 11
      

      Slowly turning into fall here, chillier and more overcast this week but a sunnier and gentler month overall compared to Vermont. Soft, filtered light today, a lots of different shapes and colours of leaves in the process of falling. Week of the full moon, it was a pretty intense one after a mostly positive build up. Continued with the finishing project, took on a set of older images that really needed help along with a few easier ones to make me feel like I know what I'm doing. Always a balance between certainty and doubt, they inform one another. Some social stuff the last few days, went to an opening downtown on Friday night, wanted to like the work but it didn't feel resolved to me. In these situations I tend to have difficulty with the paint itself, commercial, quick, lots of handling gimmicks to try to enliven things, but I try to look beyond this. After all, what kind of fool gets involved in making paint in 2014? Given the pedigree of this work, though, it was a surprise that it didn't have more understanding of the grammar of colour, this aspect just felt off to me, like the elements of draftsmanship and colour were at war within the space. But, that's okay, and that tension may even be an official part of the style. But it made me wonder, once again, about where I'm going to fit in. I think my work would sell well here, but I might not be able to afford the success. Went to a near-by open air organic market yesterday, this was a nice break from the co-op and had the six or seven of the most gigantic Romanesco cauliflower I've ever seen, the size of basketballs, they almost looked like sea creatures. I love the variety that's being grown now, got some squeaky fresh late Lacinato kale and Japanese sweet potatoes.



      

      Made a few more earth colours with four year old hand-refined linseed oil this week. This is an oddball raw sienna from Luberon via Natural Pigments, very verdaccio, may have manganese in it which makes me a little concerned about long term darkening but, like raw umber itself, it's very useful in a lower chroma approach. Started this out tight and ground it several times, each time it fell apart and I added more pigment. Finally stopped here, you can see how it puddles but has a great deal of elastic resilience. Made a dark orange French ochre as well, had the same experience. These were fun to work with, mobile but dense compared to commercial paint. I'm not sure about how long these colours will last in tubes, but it will be fun to get a full palette together and do an entire painting with just this paint.



      

      Finished washing the sacred Flora walnut oil, added some pool sand, fractured silica, to the fourth week wash, this took out some nice chunks of mucilage. Pure water alone seems to work better for linseed oil, I wonder if it's because of the different fatty acid make-up, linseed oil is more active. Decided to freeze the walnut oil after removing it from the water, this is a nice alternative to heat for clearing it. Although a small amount of water remains, this can be evaporated without heat.



      

      Something from last week that was too wet to photograph. Small study for something larger, went though many thin layers and is now more or less back where it started. This is like a lot of things: the Golden Rule may make sense when you're a kid, but develop more meaning four decades later. Close, would like a little more. When I got here in the Spring I worked on some of these florals at about 2x2 feet, this image has me thinking about those again. About 11x12 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Another older one, a relatively low chroma situation that, being cool, had me perplexed for many layers. Altered for the better, but still on its way somewhere new. About 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed canvas over panel.



      

      Something really old I've never been able to abandon, this was a mess but I still can't resist trying to bring it together. This is sort of like Abraham bargaining about Sodom and Gomorrah, but stilll think this can be saved. The flowers in these have a tendency to expand over time, so you can see a lot of trimming where the edges were redefined. Better, but went from subtle to subfusc, always a danger with more dense application. In some ways it would be easier to do a new one, but the new ones are so much easier, it's more fun to see if this can be rescued, so much more evidence in the surface. 11x14 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Another older one with an inscrutable feeling I'd always liked, balance of fatalism and hope like a Russian novel, maybe a little too scary at this point. Still wet so lots of reflections. Less of an issue than the image above, it will just take a few layers to fine tune everything. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Happier one, this may be the same flowers at an earlier stage. This one has always been in a good place, just needed more resolution in the details without too much detail. This can take a while for me, there's no formula, but very close now to being done on several levels. At the same time, I look at this and wonder where the struggle is. There's a tendency to discount this element in painting, but to me this is one of the great modern innovations about the realistic surface: it doesn't have to be a seamless mirror, it can have evidence of the process that created it. Of course, it is again all about balance, I'm not into bravura paint for its own sake. Well, that's complex too, since there's sincere bravura too. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Another reclamation project, just a detail, an image of those David Austin roses that has beaten me up for years in several versions. Something is beginning to go on here I like in terms of resolution-dissolution of form. Whole painting is 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.

      So, not the best week but not the worst, coming to terms with the bone pile is always sobering but therapeutic. The week to come is the third week of the moon, can be a good one for finishing things if I don't try for too much. May be able to keep going with the florals but might need to try out some of what I've learned in the last few weeks with the landscape work.



november 2
      

      More lovely soft sunny days, then a little rain and some colder weather this morning briefly. Waxing moon, a good week for the work, a lot happened, I'm sort of dazed but am beginning to understand more about the personal process, the origin of my almost desperate resistance to finishing things. A long story, back, back, back we go. So it feels like something else is happening besides paintings getting closer to finished. The inner story never gets told in so many words, but needs to be there. Or there is no there there.



      

      Went to the museum here last Sunday, first stop was the Paul Strand show, as a kid I did a lot of photography and he was one of the first people I really liked. So, a little bit of a trip down memory lane in this, thinking about the good part of Andover and being fascinated by Strand, Evans, Atget. The show was well done, a balance of work from a long career, some early movies as well. The prints themselves were small, and featured Strand's way of printing things, on the dark and low-key side. For me this worked better sometimes than others. He really got around, work from all over the world, plenty of images that would be in anybody's book of 20th century greats. Still, the basic thing I brought away is that photographs are not paintings, that switching was the right choice for me.



      

      One thing a visit to a museum will always make clear is that impressive paintings are not necessarily any fun. This Corot study from Italy stole the show for me with its simplicity and directness.



      

      As a kid I was always fascinated by the prismatic Kandinsky watercolours and the Johnson Collection of early Italian paintings. The Kandinsky watercolours are no longer on display, too fragile apparently, are being saved for the future in the dark. A detail here from the Johnson Collection, a great deal going on with very little pigment on a nicely aged gessoed panel.



      

      It's always good to go to the museum, but at a certain point I begin to feel like this guy here. It is, after all, the past, it is, after all, highly and pretty arbitrarily selected, the hushed and sacred repository. There's always stuff to learn, but it needs to find its way into the present, and this, paradoxically, takes time.



      

      Out again into the present, a bright October afternoon, looking at the skyline. This was non-existent as a kid, nothing could be higher than the statue of William Penn on City Hall. The sparkle of newness is a relief, but which of these buildings will be around in a century, let alone five? What can we give each other that might last, have relevance? I've always found it in art. Not art the hip urban commodity, not the most impressive art as a rule, but the art that offered the most philosophically. Someone sent me this quote from Einstein, perhaps a translation: 'I affirm that the cosmic religiosity is the strongest and more powerful among all tools of scientific research. Science without religion is blind. All religions, arts or sciences are fruits from the same tree, the only aspiration of which is to turn the life of humans more dignified: that is, allow individuals to rise beyond the simple physical existence and be free.



      

      When I got to this studio last Spring I just started using what I had, but for a while I've wanted to make some paint with older hand-refined linseed oil. After three or four years in the light, the oil begins to get a gelatinous quality on its own, what would paint made with this oil be like? Began with a colour I've missed, a dark transparent iron oxide Kremer calls Lasurorange. The paint was very dense and gelatinous, am a little concerned about its life in a tube given the ingredients. This project will go one for a while, each pigment is different.



      

      Completed the third week-long wash with the sacred Flora walnut oil, but decided to go to a fourth week, added some sand to help pull the mucilage out. With linseed oil, the fourth week really begins to break it down, but this seems to be okay so far. Then did a wash of some hand-pressed oil I got from Tom Hirsz with sand and salt. This was interesting in that the oil emulsified thoroughly right away. After shaking this maniacally off and on for an hour or so, let it sit overnight, in the morning there was a clear line of oil and mucilage. Added cold water gently to the top of the jar to separate them, this is lighter than the salt water, makes it easier to recover the oil alone from the top. Not sure what to expect from these oils, in theory they are very close to what older painters might have begun with, being primitively pressed, especially the linseed, no heat at all, but there are lots of variables, with linseed the cultivars are different to begin with, the ripest seed cannot be machine gathered as it scatters to easily, etc. I think the walnut oil will probably be more genuinely different than the walnut oils I've refined in the past, more body. But, as always, we'll see.



      

      This week's paint got a little stickier. Stayed with the same emulsion putty with a little hide glue, added some thicker oil to the white to make it seize. So, a little more density, a little more texture in the system this week. There are several materials that make paint seize: hard resin varnish, traditional burnt plate oil, a leaded oil that has become a dense syrup, and any hand-refined cold-pressed oil that has become thick: sun oil would do it, for example, if the oil were refined first.



      

      Began here with the denser paint idea, something humble I've always liked, wanted to break up the paint a little more. About 9x12 inches, oil on gessoed canvas over panel.



      

      Alla prima start from years ago that's been through a lot. One of the more snake-bitten images ever, a lot of odd things have happened to it including getting damaged in the move. So, round one of cleaning up the damage, added some grays where I couldn't see them before but didn't try for too much. About 8x16 inches, oil on gessoed panel.



      

      Then began with some of the older florals, made this one a little more painterly but still held onto the original conception. I could see something happening in this, but wasn't sure what it was at first. About 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Another older one I'm loathe to give up on. It had gotten awfully dark, think I was more depressed in Vermont than I realized. Made a few changes I liked, but then became daunted. Looking at it in terms of everything else that happened later in the week, I think there's hope, but in another direction, this approach is over. As always, the light bulb has to really want to change. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      A second version of something I did from life a long time ago, had several layers on it and was close. Worked on it with the idea of moving away from too much detail and specificity. In a way this is too much in the other direction, back to the Morandi model. But, it has served its purpose. A little glare here, but in life this is done. 12x14 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      This is an image I always liked, but one that had really stalled in specificity, for several layers. It was driving me nuts, I kept trying harder, it never got better. So, I finally felt confident I had been doing the wrong thing. You may laugh, but confidence is confidence. There's a palette that I've been noticing, saw it in a Tiepolo ceiling study at the museum, used those colours although they ended up softer. Same paint as everything, just more of it. This was really fun to do, felt like a breakthrough in personal terms. It's one thing to say you want less detail, it's another to figure out what that actually means in the context of the image. So, too new to know if it's done or not, but something that felt right, realism used as a portal to something beyond it. 13x15 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.

      I'm pretty tired now, it was a big week. But also pretty excited about the week to come, there are some models now, some tangible examples that feel like the next step. Perhaps just as importantly, I know clearly, again, for the zillionth time, what I tend to do that doesn't work. Just need to be moderate, not too greedy, and keep going with this somewhat denser paint, somewhat denser application.



october 26
      

      October continues to be warm and elegant, a very slow change from summer to fall. New moon this week on Thursday, I always try to be aware of the quality of this day as it seems to set the tone for the month itself. Had a good run this summer but the last few moons haven't been great for the work. This one seems different, arrived with a bang, could suddenly do what I'd been waiting, it seemed, for months to do. On the one hand, it was a new beginning, on the other hand, it was something new. I guess this is all part of the learning process: if it were seamless, if work itself were all that the process required, that would be too easy. Didn't do anything new, or try anything too ambitious, redid assorted unfinished, mostly older work. By 2001 I had a system that worked for finishing work. At least, it worked to an extent, well enough that, in my infinite wisdom I became impatient with it and started to ask for more. Another example of being careful what you wish for, because I did get more, enough to puzzle out for over a decade. But now I'm interested in finishing things again, product is, after all, part of the process. (Did that make you laugh too?) And so, revisited the combination of denser paint and more essential execution that worked best for me before. It's almost like it was finally possible to give myself permission again, I'm not sure why. Maybe because people in Vermont responded more to work that was more detailed, more "finished." Maybe because visiting the Barnes, complex as that was, helped me to realize that there have been collectors who appreciated the essential, even if there weren't that many of them in Vermont. So, some re-tooling of definitions. Of course, the system is not the same now, although the paint quality is similar. And it's fun to map colour to form by type more accurately from its own logic, without using a reference. You could say that life is about balancing active and passive, we can be neither all the time. And this gets into the active passive, the passive active, many possible types of orientation of consciousness in time. Colour seems to work the same way, active colours exist in a matrix of passive colours, but with lots of cross-fertilization. It's of course possible, perhaps even necessary, to get technical about this, to understand the colour types, what goes where. But in the end it's about making art, and art is about a given dynamic balance of active and passive.



      

      The sacred Flora walnut oil is now in week three, I'm excited to see what the feel of the final oil will be, had developed a specific idea of walnut oil based on a lot of work with Spectrum Naturals years ago. This oil is pretty non-yellowing, but also on the watery side dues to the way it has been refined. Based on the behavior of some artisanal walnut oil I got from France this summer as a gift, I'm hoping for more body or character from the Flora, we'll see. There's another project coming, I need to make a set of paints from aged hand-refined linseed oil, have enough oil now that is four years old to do this, can feel the concept gaining internal momentum. Have a feeling this will solve a particular materials puzzle in relation to older painting. Continued to work with the addition of a little hide glue to the putty, the hide glue gets mashed into the oil, creating a more thixotropic emulsion that then gets added to the paint. This is a simple system -- chalk, oil, hide glue -- but there are some parameters to contend with. Density can be supplied by the amount of chalk, the type of oil, or the amount of hide glue. The paint itself mitigates the density of the medium, I used to add more medium because I liked its properties so much, but now I'm adding less to get more colour. The question is always how much of what consistency is effective for a given painting: I often make the paint, then look for what to work on with it. Sometimes I still get waylaid by paint that is quite dense, this holds well but doesn't have much movement. In some ways this works for finishing things, it's reliable but actually slower, less intuitive. The best paint, especially for re-working things from the bone pile, is more mobile. The other thing I did this week in the interest of finishing was re-introduce some titanium white. Not much, but a little. This is sort of like introducing a little heroin. The interesting thing about this was that it made simple grays made with black feel that much bluer. The relativity of colour to its context is always fascinating. Students always wanted to know who makes the brightest colours, but of course the vivacity of any colour is always relative to its context. Similarly, there's always a horror of muddy colour. But it isn't the colour that's muddy -- any colour, no matter how diminished, has an opposite -- it's the context. Thinking about colour relative to context is sort of a multidimensional chess game that gets more dimensions the more you play it. Maybe this is similar to finding more galaxies, or more subatomic particles, the more we look. Anyway, it's very therapeutic, more can always be learned about the structure of a language that is cosmic, rather than human, in both origin and intent.



      

       The house where I grew up was near an entrance to Fairmount Park, look a long walk through there yesterday afternoon. Although there are incursions of more domestic plants from houses that are near the park, it's mostly even wilder and more overgrown than it used to be. The things I liked most were the sounds of the water, several sets of quiet ripples, and the way the light coming through the moving water creates a pattern of rapid dappled shadows, static but in constant motion, on the steam bed. This is still mesmerizing to watch: active passive, passive active? Sort of like listening to a chorus of peepers in the Spring, the sight or sound is more detailed than it first appears.



      

      Very old image that always fascinated me, also an older style of palette, hadn't done this type of work in a while, always interesting to return to a particular approach after a fallow period. Like this in general, but it doesn't feel complete. About 9x12 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Began this peony from life in a room with windows on three sides. Very absorbent ground, lots of paint but also lots of small reverse pointilles where the paint stuck too firmly to cover the ground. I liked this in a way at first, the Gwen John look, but then decided it needed a little more development. About 8.5x12 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Something really old, from 2001, completed this originally by removing paint, but there was so little paint on some places that, when it was varnished, a lot of changes occurred that I didn't like. But, in larger terms, this has always had something I liked. So, removed the varnish and started over. Very lumpy, the sort of thing that did not fly at all in Vermont, so reclaiming this territory is good. Better in life, might be done. 10x14 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      An image of lilacs that had turned out well in an earlier version, this one was easy to fix to some extent because it had gone so far in the wrong direction. Plain gessoed panel, I still find this surface challenging. Cleaned up, in need of more atmosphere, more paint. About 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed panel.



      

      Something that's been close for a while, but this is always when they get the most interesting to work on. The ground had become a little cool, warmed that up and restated the petals. A case now of simply doing something similar again, probably with paint that has more overall motion in it. About 9x12 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Again, something that had veered off track that still seemed to have potential. If enough time goes by, it's always obvious what went awry. Probably the strongest layer of the week, had a clear sense of the balance in this one, would that it were ever so. About 12x13.5 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Worked on a few landscapes again later in the week, always good to remove blue from the palette, always good to put it back. This was the last study I tried at a smaller scale before deciding the scale itself was hopeless. Denser paint, good for some things but not others. The sense of atmosphere is coming but now there's too much of it. I'd like to nail this down further, but maybe the best thing is to move on to a larger one, far easier to work on. About 9x15 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



october 19
      

      Waning moon, a week with a few days of intense warm rain followed by gentle sunny days. Since I got here I've been working to put together something new, and the closer it gets, the more I've wanted to keep going. But this can be a double-edged sword, ended up pushing things too hard last week and became kind of a zombie, had to take a few days off. Overwork used to come with some sort of back incident, but didn't this time, so that was a relief. Working on the book is helpful in this situation, anodyne, there's always something to correct in the next edit, made a few PDF versions of the text, it's easier for me to spot issues in these. In any new edition the text expands a lot at first, then it gets shrunk back down as things get tighter and tighter. The main body is down to 460 from over 500 when I began, this is more than I thought it could be tightened but that's always the case. This last pass was mostly for widows and orphans, it's fun to get better at figuring out how to get rid of these. I mean, up to a point, then it's great to stop. Started again later in the week with painting, did get a little work done, as always when there's a pause, it seems to begin somewhere new. I'd love to settle down and just finish things over the winter, but have a feeling this isn't going to happen. Wendy Whelan retired from the New York City Ballet this week. I got to see her perform once at Lincoln Center, she was just mesmerizing, an amazing artist, really learned a lot that evening, wholly unexpected.

      Went to the new Barnes on Friday night, had only been to the old one, a long time ago at that. The move from the Main Line in town was controversial, they had to interpret his will in a pretty creative way. The paintings are set up just the way Barnes had it, his dense hanging style of creating relationships, but of course it's no longer in a rambling old house in Merion with big French windows, surrounded by a rambling old-fashioned garden and a whole lot of those majestic local trees, it's smack downtown, across the street from a giant and discreetly camouflaged Whole Foods. During his life Barnes was not on the best terms arts intelligentsia of Philadelphia proper and wanted art integrated with life, not put on a pedestal. The old Barnes was quaint, charming, goofy, and also a little weird. The new Barnes is an elegant modern structure with a very oblique entry and an interior full of rich materials, including a lot of large slabs of hand-decorated stone as walls, a cross between calligraphy and older carving marks. There's a huge antechamber area, soaring ceiling, sort of Egyptian temple in feeling somehow, (although, incongruously, this is a temple with a discreet cash bar) before you get to the galleries. There's nothing added, no gallery for visiting exhibits, no gallery about Barnes or the original venue. The collection itself is a very complex mix, not as soothing as the Clark or as full of inspired individual choices as the Phillips. The Cezannes were the strongest suit, by quite a margin. Not my favorite painter but they were undeniable, brooding, edgy and potent. But how the person who picked those also got all those soporific Renoirs is a puzzle. They are pretty distracting. There are a few strong Matisse paintings among many but few of these are aging well, thin paint, no varnish, they are always pumped up in reproduction. But then, it seems like everything from this era is: who wants the real painting when you could have the digitally idealized version of it? A few small Vuillard and Bonnard paintings, these looked very good, they both sensed the danger of too much idea, not enough paint. Two pieces by Charles Prendergast, who mostly made frames and worked on incised gessoed panels, these are Arcadian fantasies, sort of light on content but the technique is always fun to see. The Modigliani's are all impressive, a great example of doing one thing intuitively and really well. I have a soft spot for Utrillo, and there's a good range of them, one great one with a Prussian blue emphasis, couldn't find a reproduction. Will someone please do a decent new book of these paintings? Assorted strong early Picasso work that has held up well, some great Matisse drawings tucked away, some strange stiff Corot study heads and an outright Corot fake landscape, but by someone different than whoever faked the Corot at the Gardener. Out of four Chardins one looks real, has the paint quality, the soft focus, the use of slightly impastoed white, the elegantly restrained and unified colour. This one was really nice to see, an exercise in ethical philosophy masquerading as an oil painting. The others were just plain masquerades, too tight, colour too vivid. The one with the kid blowing the soap bubble is a great example of a classic way forgers give themselves away by creating a charming pastiche of official but unrelated themes, no real museum could exhibit this. The Impressionist era paintings were never varnished, the dangers of varnishing and the dangers of not varnishing seem about equal, even some of the Renoirs have gone off. The pristine nature of the new building accentuated the fact that most of the collection is really in need of cleaning.

      On and on, a lot to consider, both in terms of the work and the fate of the collection. I'm glad I went again, but I have to agree with the people who say it should have stayed where it was. The rallying cry was apparently that they were going to "free the paintings" from their prison in Merion, but really they just annexed them because they could, and put them in a context to which they bear no relation. This is awkward. The building itself has some interesting qualities, but none of them are in relation to the collection itself. The tone deafness of the new structure to Barnes as the progenitor, the collection's raison d'etre, is a little unsettling. The old Barnes, for all its quirkiness, worked because it had heart. The new situation just proves that money can't buy you love, which everyone involved should have known anyway. But power has a way of altering perception, doesn't it? At the Gardner, they solved the problem of the old palazzo by placing the new building right next to it, and integrating them through her interest in gardening and botany. Of course, at the Gardener the palazzo is a huge part of the deal, but something similar could have been done either in the new location or, more easily and preferably, the old one, allowing the Barnes to have new life based on it's precepts while maintaining its original integrity. But this would have involved an active renaissance of the vision that created the collection: Barnes saw himself as an educator. Now the collection is a sacred cow, appropriated by high culture Philadelphia, with education tacked on as high-class amusement. They still restrict admissions, and this allows the small space to work, there is still a great sense of intimacy with the art. But somehow it ended up feeling like a cultural country club that night, with one race tending the grounds (and the bar), another one playing the games. There's ultimately something unsettling, a lurking sense of a power grab, and one that was not thought out well in terms of the future, the Barnes as a living entity. The paintings are truly in prison now, a bunch of flies in amber. The Muses tend to look dimly on situations like this, I have a feeling this tale is not over. Afterwards we went to a bustling Shanghai dim sum restaurant in Chinatown, an intense egalitarian circus, could not have been more different or more of a relief. Why is the contemporary context of painting so pretentious? Doesn't anyone realize that this is the last thing real art can ever be?



      

      Continued to work with the same approach to the medium, tried to simplify it as much as possible. Changed the water in the sacred Flora walnut oil, will shake this off and on again all week. Easier to emulsify, but otherwise not much change from week one so far. The third week is usually the one where a lot of material goes into solution. I forget how nice this procedure is, beyond results because it takes so long, not that much effort and a surprise when it's done.



      

      Second layer on last week's image from the Mugello, was happy with the paint quality in this and the scale but more seems possible. About 12x20 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Only beginning of the week, a very local view from across the train tracks. Was tired still, but got further than I thought I might by using relatively thick paint and doing a lot of scraping and correction on linen. Not sure where this will go, somewhere different than where it is but not sure how yet, several options to consider. I'd like to develop more imagery of the neighborhood, the process has to start somewhere. It seems a little austere, to need another element. Otherwise the focus is too much on the triangle. One option is some clouds, I have an assortment from the evening recorded, this takes it more into the territory of the 19th century sky study. Of course, the whole thing could be painted with more texture, this was the original concept. Anyway, not sure, but it's interesting to consider. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen.



october 12
      

      Week of the full moon, a little cooler here bit by bit, the giant hibiscus bushes are still in bloom on the streets but not for too much longer. The weather here has been so elegant, the weather in Vermont often had a touch of "puny human!" in it. Having grown up here, it's always interesting to be walking along and remember something, to be sort of arrested out of the present into the past. There's a smell here in the fall of fallen leaves baking on a sunny afternoon that's very specific, I remember this walking to the ice cream truck after school, we'd then cut across the athletic fields to take the train home from Queen Lane station. Worked on some larger studies, some local material, pretty different approaches in each one based on some small changes to the medium. Nothing conclusive from this series yet, but it feels like a positive next step. Part of me wants to work harder, part of me wants to work more spontaneously, this week I sort of did both. I don't think I can work this hard, I'm on a kind of edge, sort of feel dislocated. A lot more needs to happen in this life than in my former Vermont life as a hermit, a lot more to balance day in and out. Sometimes I'm not sure how to handle it all, I get it done, but don't have the former sense of focus. But I'm not sure this wasn't a grand illusion, a bigger one even than my education. I think I tried to slow time down so much in order to understand things better: a simple, Zen-like life that could naturally go deeper. But I'm beginning to realize that this was a phase, that, in larger terms, the destination of understanding is not going to happen. It's been a strange combination of disaster and relief to consider that the quality of understanding I want, really want, is simply not on the wavelength of life on earth. Being here, in Philadelphia, is good for this, because, as a kid, Philadelphia always confused me. There were so many different people, so many cultural compartments, there was always so much going on, so much paradox, even the physical one of a giant city but carved out of a forest that was still growing back. It seems like being here again is offering an opportunity to work with this confusion creatively, to get beyond the idea of a solution, to accept the continuum of experience in a place that isn't a destination but, strangely enough, home.



      

      You know, it's so nice of you to ask how the book is going. I slog away at this project relentlessly, but it's sort of geeky, I get concerned people will just roll their eyes. I'm closing in on edition five at this point, properties told me there have been 1640 revisions, and 711 hours of editing since edition four in 2012. Fine tuning is interesting, you can always get a little closer to the wall with it all: the layout, the clarity, and the conclusion. But I think at this point I'm about done. There's greater understanding within a given compartment of life, and that's enough. It's exciting to complete a project like this, makes me hopeful that someday I'll complete a painting as well. Am looking for a printer, there aren't that many of these, and close is better than far, one in Ohio is looking good right now. The people who did it before did fine, but took forever for no apparent reason, not sure I can go through this waiting and wondering routine again. I'd also love to find 80 lb. cream text, but this may not be possible. So, 80lb white or 60lb cream? As the last edition, I'd like it to be a little nicer, but not sure how this will manifest, things are pretty cut-and-dried at this point in terms of the available materials.



      

      Continued with week with variations on the putty with a little added hide glue medium, did three variations that resulted in three different looks. Also started washing a cup of the sacred Flora walnut oil, cold-pressed, organic, processed at 50C. This stuff is quite pricey but Jedwards has something similar that's half as much, probably refined at a higher temperature, cold-pressed can be up to 100C, don't you love words? Realized this summer when I was sent a sample of artisanal walnut oil from France that this approach was much different, walnut oil was not necessarily like water. Will wash this for three weeks in three changes of water, the simplest procedure.



      

      Started here last Sunday afternoon, this is of the boathouses along the river by the art museum downtown. Pretty commercial subject matter, it was fun to give it some moodiness. Liked this in terms of the paint, palette, and scale, definitely a development. But would like something more. Or less. At this point it's not resolved in terms of the rendering, I don't necessarily want more detail but do want a sense of graphic clarity or consistency. Still, was happy with this as a development, will keep looking at it until the next step is obvious. About 11x20 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      This one is of a driveway in a commercial section of Germantown Avenue that I pass on the way to the post office, the co-op. It's always been interesting but I walked by later in the day this week and it really sang. I liked this because it seemed so much like Italy, and because one of the buildings is a pretty infamous local tavern. Denser paint that could be discrete or somewhat blended, less resolved than the one above but the next step seems more clear. Not sure about the proportions, added more to the right, more could still be added there, possibly to the top as well. A little confusing, but if it gets too big it can always be cut down. Detail below, a little larger than life, showing how the paint worked. About 13.5x19 inches, oil on gessoed paper.





      

      The medium above seemed to make paint that was a little dense, so I tried a version of it that was less thick. Although this one puddled, there was still the internal grab of the hide glue itself. In terms of the paint matching the subject matter, this was closer, maybe a little too goopy but that makes for more internal movement. This is an image from the Mugello that I'd done a small study of. Over time that study had become kind of clogged, so it seemed better to move on to a new, bigger version. There's a study of Italy by Leighton in the Gere Collection that I think about in relation to this. Not quite done, don't feel there's much that one more layer wouldn't fix but have felt that often enough before. Still, this medium scale approach seems more natural at long last. About 11.5x20 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Here's the medium formula for the painting above. There are four ingredients, chalk, calcite, oil, and a little bit of glue size, actually this batch of glue had some added starch but that doesn't make a difference. The trickiest thing to work out here has been the combination of oils, this one used a thin, medium, and thick version of the hand-refined linseed oil. In the note I wrote to leave the thin out, make the same approach with medium and thick next time. In terms of the proportions involved in formulas, this stuff is pretty straightforward, but I write it down because sometimes I look at something after a while and like it much more, or less, than I did at first. Even after a few weeks I have no idea how it was done unless I've written it down.



      

      Larger version of the recurring Mugello therapy image that began earlier this summer, this had become sort of picayune, worked to consolidate it, lighten in mood, make the paint match the scale. More to do, probably more of the same, paint with even more density. Not sure I'll ever love this but it showed me what not to do at this scale. About 14x29 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



october 5
      

      Fall is happening slowly here, still lots of flowers, trees just beginning to turn. Waxing moon, lots of energy, but not that focused, there were a few really good moons this summer, easy to work, and I got used to it. Not the best week, things sort of slid sideways, but at least this month is more cooperative than last month. In general it's still challenging to balance everything that wants to happen here compared to the virtual monastery of Vermont. Not a complaint, more an acknowledgement that change is inevitable, needs to be dealt with, not resisted. The book project created a tremendous amount of work in progress, thought it would be interesting this week to concentrate on finishing things. It's hard to define finished, it seems to change from image to image. Maybe the best thing is to say that it's a synthesis between the felt and the seen that leads to a transformation, something that wasn't available to either the felt or the seen singly. It sounds erudite but almost everyone interested in this painterly realism stuff know finished when they see it, buyers always find the best painting in the studio by some uncanny intuition. Anyway, I've always wanted to just let finished happen in its own good time, instead of defining it a specific way. This has been good for the process, but in the last year or so I've felt like it would be good to ask for a little more closure now and then. But each time I try this, I get sort of frustrated and confused, like I'm not doing the right thing, but am trying to force things, edition myself. Still, I'm not sure how much choice there is going to be over the next few years. Well, that may be too narrow. Maybe it's fair to say that, given the economics of living here, something needs to change, but after this week I'm pretty sure it's not going to be the process. Not a new conclusion: I'm not going to wake up anytime soon with a stylistic destination, a brand. So, the move continues at the next level: it's all here, now it's time to do something with it. It's hard to be patient and make this up bit by bit, but this is what I've always done. There will continue to be a series of answers based on a series of questions. This has always worked in the past, we'll see if that holds true here.



      

      We went in town yesterday to see the paintings by Roger Chavez at Gross-McCleaf. The painting the link opens to was really nice in person, not quite as severe in the format and a great sense of anticipation in both the space and colour. They were on the minimal side in terms of colour, but much better in person than online. I really liked the long format ones, more so as I looked at them, so that was fun. The work that was being shown with them was very different! I haven't gotten in town much since being back, it was a sunny Saturday afternoon and the city was in a good mood. A lot of changes, things in general are more upscale but still kind of gritty, lots more of an international character. Went to Reading Terminal Market, this is part of the old Philadelphia, a total hodge-podge of all kinds of food for sale, again a mix of new and old, lots of memories from long ago, felt at home there. Lots of intense crowds in the last few months, this was something that never happened in Vermont, but I'm getting more used to it, moving through a heaving sea of humanity. There's a lot of imagery here, some of it more urban, but a lot of it surprisingly not. I did a little work with it earlier in the year, but it might be time to do more. This past week I tried resurrecting the past in the interest of product, but, besides not really working out that well, it made me miss the energy of the present. So we'll see where this leads.



      

      Did a little experimenting with cherry gum this week, it's sort of similar to gum arabic, but definitely has it's own personality. Need to try again, had difficulty reconstituting the older gum I got, it needs a lot of time in the water bath. The best thing would be to find some in the Spring, there are plenty of cherry trees around here. Continued mainly with the hide glue addition to the putty, have been using a specific proportion of ingredients for this but got the measuring spoons mixed up and ended up with something that looked bouncier but worked smoother, more like normal paint, oh no. So, that was funny, illustrated again how much this stuff is all about proportion. There are four ingredients: the chalk, two oils, thick and thin, and the hide glue. So, this is pretty simple, but still there are four axes of change.



      

      Started with an image from the Garfagnana, I liked this original study a few years ago but now it seemed unfinished, so redid it based on what I learned from making a larger one, the general process in reverse. Saturated paint, dense with fine texture, lots of glare here. In life I like this, but it's not done. The first one had become a little low-key and moody, this one is a little too normal. In some ways it's inevitable that, in changing something, it will get changed too much. So, on it's way, one more strong layer would complete this. About 9x13.5 inches, oil on paper on panel.



      

      Redoing another older study that seemed less than ideal after a few years, very old house I stayed in years ago outside Lucca, learned a great deal in this location, it has always meant a lot to me. Again, the first study was a little moody, this one got rid of that but isn't complete in the new place yet. About 9x13 inches, oil on paper (Arches Huile).



      

      Worked on another Italy study from a few years ago that seemed less complete at this point, not done but I'm happier with this one in life, always interesting when an image has something inscrutable that works. The paint was a little less rococo on this day, one more layer with paint with more texture might finish this. About 9x14 inches, oil on paper (Arches Huile).



      

      Something from Farr Cross in Vermont that had gone really wrong. An image that has always intrigued me but hasn't been easy to figure out. Lots of quite textured paint, it was fun to really obliterate what was underneath but this still has a long way to go. Still, I'd rather build on something like this, the charismatic mess. About 10.5x16 inches, oil on paper (Arches Huile).



      

      Another older study from Italy, this time in the Mugello, wanted to learn more about recession with this. Getting closer but this will still take another layer or two. Again, a place I really cared about, something that seems worth the effort both personally and in terms of solving the technical puzzle. About 10.5x14 inches, oil on gessoed paper.

      So, we'll see what next week brings, the full moon is usually productive. At least I know, yet again, what doesn't work.



september 28
      

      Week of the new moon, a little cooler but now more lovely soft sunny weather, not quite summer or fall. Got the social security card, this meant I could get a PA license, which meant I could get PA insurance, which meant I could get the car, see below. You would think insurance here would be ten times what it was in Vermont, but it was only five. All this took a while to do, and a while to recover from, so not that much could happen in the work. What happened was okay, not great. The paint is as good as it's ever been, but there's just been too much going on, the work needs a little more in the way of peace and quiet. I can function, and did a little caffeinated banging out at one point, but with this approach I typically end up feeling there's something missing. So, this is a little frustrating, the sense of a lot of promise, being close to fruition, but needing to be patient still. Perhaps this is a high class problem, but I want to keep chipping away at it. There are a tremendous number of paintings in progress at this point, this week I began to focus on finishing them. This was generally positive, once something is a few months old I can usually see how to develop it, and some of these are even older, meaning it's easier still. I don't think I'll ever be a production painter, but more emphasis on completion is overdue.



      

      So, this is what has taken up so much time the last few weeks, 2009 Forester, about 40,00 miles, a spring chicken for me. I like driving this, it's nicely made without being fancy and really on the road, will last in a way the 240 Volvos did, with a similar type of total visibility. Between the colour and wanting a manual transmission, actually picking out the car was simple, but getting a PA license again was not. Although I did get my old license number back, another strange reminder that, for better or worse, I'm home.



      

      Kept going this week with the hide glue addition to the putty as a medium, all the tempera binders have different personalities and in the past few years I didn't explore hide glue nearly as much as starch or gum arabic, mostly because it's strength put me off. Got some cherry gum from Kremer, this is mentioned by Groen as being used by Rembrandt, although, interestingly, in a red glaze. The colour isn't a concern, since I'll be using so little. Still, an unusual material, quite tough and rubbery but not hard or brittle. I have no sense of it being "the lost secret" at this point, but it will be interesting to run it through some tests, it looks like it may behave somewhat like gum arabic, maybe more like gum arabic than gum arabic. Am also thinking about doing another round of work with walnut oil. I was sent some cold-pressed French walnut oil this summer by Christian Ward Hidaka, and, besides tasting just amazing, this turned out to be different than any of the walnut oils I've worked with so far. It seemed to be less watery, have more bounce, and to dry faster. So, I want to get some of the Flora cold-pressed walnut oil, generally available online in the US, and see how it refines. This is a nutritional oil, pressed at 50C, I think the lower processing temperature, along with simple hand-refining, may have a lot to do with the ultimate behavior. I haven't been able to locate an artisanal cold-pressed walnut oil in America yet, but if you're in Europe, there seem to be plenty of them for culinary purposes. I think in America the problem is shelf life, I have a feeling unrefined walnut oil becomes rancid pretty quickly. But of course, for painting, oxygen uptake makes for more rapid drying.



      

      A copy of a painting that's really close to finished after the usual dozen layers or so, this one now has two. Did this on some coarser linen with RSG and lead white as the priming. Glossy and mobile approach to the medium, this was good for beginning but the photo has lots of glare, illustrating the perennial possibility of linen interfering with the presence of the paint. For me this also illustrates how everything has to be finished on its own terms. A pretty fair creative copy of the original, in some ways better for being cleaner, but somehow a little glib so far, nowhere near complete. About 10x12 inches, oil on linen.



      

      Another layer on the beginning from last week, it dried a little low chroma, with the value scale compressed. Still needs more, but not bad for this stage. About 10.5x14 inches, oil on gessoed paper mounted on canvas.



      

      A second layer on yet another version of this perennial therapy image from the Mugello, not done but a nice balance of several factors coming together. This is on that handmade Zecchi paper, RSG and thin white lead ground. This paper has a great texture but not the most strength, definitely needs to be mounted on something else to feel safe. This is sort of the opposite of Twinrocker: really strong but not the most interesting surface. About 8.5x13 inches .



september 21
      

      Waning moon, new moon Tuesday, will be glad to see the last of this moon, challenging from beginning to end. Cooler overall, some truly lovely days. A complicated week, I'm not exactly getting used to this but am getting less unnerved by it. Got a new car, a 2009 Forester, that part was easy, but getting a PA license is more complex, some false starts here accruing the right information, so the car is still with the dealer. You would think a passport would establish your identity, but the DMV wants your social security card too. Something about all this is pretty intimidating, probably because of the size and intensity of the bureaucracy compared to Vermont, the relentless dull desperation in those crowded rooms: have to keep in mind there are three times more people in Philadelphia than on all of Vermont. I had to go in town to apply for a new social security card. Well, this at least was easy because I had a passport. Went in town on the train, first time on the old Reading line, growing up I lived nearer the Pennsylvania line. So, a connection there, new but old, took the train home from school for years. The Reading line goes through north Philadelphia, some great material for paintings, blocks of old warehouses and small brick row houses, intense mixture of density and desolation. But places I definitely couldn't walk around in. Not sure if this could be developed, but all part of this world, the many worlds within this world so misleadingly called Philadelphia. The painting that was held up at the P.O. in California was finally delivered, 13 days in all for priority mail. On the other hand at least it gets there, had a book sent back from Argentina after four months, that buyer is having me resend it to a friend in Chile. The CA buyer wrote that he thinks his wife will want something brighter, but she's seen it for a few days now and I haven't heard back. Nothing I've sent out has ever come back, and of course, the longer they have it, the more likely it is to make its presence felt, but there's always a first time. Honestly, I would love this particular painting to return. So, a couple lessons here: first, start using FedEx, second, gently discourage people from buying paintings for other people, even their spouse, probe a little more via e-mail about who they are, what they know, etc., and, third, possibly have a small restocking fee if a painting does come back. Worked more on turning the apartment into a home, it is going to take a while but made some progress and yesterday surprised myself by buying a small primitive rug from Afghanistan, called a peace rug, part of a project to get another reliable source of income going there. The store was a giant warehouse, full of all kinds of stuff from Turkey to Afghanistan, everyone who worked there had some kind of interesting accent. A lot of what they had was old, distressed and refinished furniture, even some architectural salvage, it looked kind of like a giant tomb in some places, fascinating but also a little oppressive. The rugs were on the second floor, another giant room but with a lighter feeling. The style of rug I got doesn't have a geometric pattern, instead has all kinds of stylized objects on it, looks sort of like it was designed by Matisse or Milton Avery, but in that inscrutable earthy-bright colour palette.



      

      My friend Roland sent me a copy of Karin Groen's 2011 thesis about Rembrandt's medium, this was pretty interesting but offered no actual surprises. There's another level of this research going on now, which is more concise, deeper on the one hand but also venturing more in terms of present tense work with the materials. I have no issues with Groen but she cites a conclusion by another scholar that seemed pretty superficial to me, viz, that there is "no difference" between the behavior of lead white mixed with whole egg, and lead white mixed with egg yolk. It is unfortunate if a new generation of scholars begins to accept this level of technical awareness as "Old Master" just because it comes from one of their own, people like Leslie Carlyle or Joyce Townsend have always been aware of the multidimensional materials puzzle and this informs their work. Anyway, it appears more and more like Rembrandt's system was tempera grassa in reverse: oil with a little tempera ingredient added to arrest the paint. She discusses egg, hide glue, and cherry gum as water based ingredients. I've done a lot of work with gum arabic and starch, but less with hide glue, and could see a different way of approaching it. Started with one part hide glue and one part denser oil, this is the hand-refined linseed oil, thickened by exposure to air. The glue was cold and this took some mashing to get smooth, but it was a very stable emulsion and quite elastic, photo below. I then added thinner oil and chalk in various proportions. The medium is a little deceptive in that, like a soft resin medium, it has a progressive set. I think something like this could also be done with commercial pre-polymerized oils such as stand oil or burnt plate oil. It might not be quite as elastic, but that might not be an issue. I wonder if my friend Allison might like fiddling around with this, she's been doing some Nihonga watercolour work with glue as well as working with oil.



      

      



      

      First painting in a few days after doing lots of running around over transportation, a choppy day, felt like I was lost in my own studio. Made with the glue emulsion idea, second layer. Used dense oil to overcome the gluiness of the glue, but went too far, a little too much like enamel for me. Also too literal, but it will be fun to see how to develop it further. I think the next paint, below, may work better for this. Image from the beach at Avalon, early in the day before it became crowded, strong light and different colours, I like this Boudin meets Hopper idea but not sure yet if its a pocket or a vein. The fact that it's a "good" idea means nothing in terms of whether it wants to keep happening or not. About 8.5x14.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Second painting made with the glue emulsion, made it leaner, and without bone ash, which made it bouncier, more discrete. Image of a farm in Vermont I've done a couple different ways, did this using one of the older studies as a model. In life it's a little subfusc, made this on the new gessoed paper, wasn't sure how absorbent the ground was, how much the paint would layer, and couldn't quite bring it up again after starting more down. Still, this unified but not bright enough quality is better at this stage than something that blinks. The storm cloud pattern is always an issue with this one, more development needed there. This paint was very fun to work with, but became dense surprisingly quickly. So, even less glue in the emulsion is probably the answer, along with more experience working with it. Two details below showing how the paint layers, first one is close to life size. About 10.5x14 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      



      

      








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