Tad Spurgeon oil paintings
Numenist, anachronist, maroon.

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A weekly look at process and work in progress.




      

      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.



      

      



      

      



september 14
      

      Waning moon, a surprisingly warm, then surprisingly cool week. When I got here it seemed like the challenging weather would be from the middle of June to the middle of September, and this has proven about right: the good nine months are about to begin. A lot continues to go on here besides painting. The buyer supplied me with an old address accidentally for the painting I shipped out, one building off, the post office could not decide whether to deliver it or not, after endless conniptions it now looks like it will be delivered on Monday. Helpless, the work in limbo thousands of miles away, could not get through to them by phone ever, just wait, not my favorite type of situation. Did more work developing Adwords, that bizarre form of international sales poker, the book has sold more in September so far than in either July or August but sales go up in the fall anyway, and the increase may well be cancelled out by the cost of the ads for now. My next project is to get set up for painting sales again with the website, e-commerce has matured a great deal in the last few years, and if I start with a RAW file I have a decent chance of getting a quality final image for the site. Got the apartment here a little more in order, I'd rather work so this is happening slowly, but it's nice to feel like there's going to be a home here in the end. Decided to give up on the old Volvo, it's about to need a lot of work and may have too much rust for inspection here anyway, so am in the process of looking for another car. For many years in Vermont I tried to slow things down, but this year has really sped them up again. On the one hand, I liked the sense of consideration and spaciousness that slower time provided, but on the other hand, have to admit it was lonely, and maybe in the end there wasn't enough challenge in it, more stuff needed to be in the air at once to learn the next level of balance. I'd love things to slow down more again for the sake of the work, but maybe that's the old way too, the idea may be to let the work adapt to the type of time I'm offered.



      

      Did some cleaning and organizing of the palette table this week, washed all the brushes, this is always grounding, therapeutic. I like keeping the brushes in oil but at a certain point, even using safflower, the oil they're in does begin to get thicker. In addition to soap, tried some washing soda (sodium carbonate) on the synthetic ones, and this seemed to speed the cleaning along. One thing I more or less ran out of was gessoed paper, so, since the move I've been working a lot on Arches Huile, on the idea that it's well-made and I always cover the regular texture anyway. But I've been missing working on glue gesso and made a batch this week, put a little fine sand in it and a little calcite, so it's slightly absorbent with a somewhat rough texture as well. Used some paper from Twinrocker, and some paper from Zecchi for this, these are handmade, the Twinrocker is stronger but the Zecchi has more personality. Another nice paper for this is Tiepolo, a little heavier than the heaviest Rives, which is also okay. Also did a test straight wood panel, the quarter inch Baltic birch, 24x15, wanted to see if it would warp, was surprised that it didn't. Still, half inch would be safer. We'll see how this goes, the idea is to create a surface that will hold an incredible amount of paint. I also like doing this to linen, but sometimes that approach seems a little too consciously old world. In the medium department, kept going with a putty with a little starch added, worked with a starch addition for several years a while ago so it's interesting to revisit this approach with a slightly different idea, basically less of something richer.



      

      Started here, third layer on this peony from June. The second layer had more resolution, but this one has more depth, so I'll look for more resolution again in the next layer. A long time ago I became suspicious of formulaic finishing, it began to seem too much like the headline that condenses a complex situation into a few words the readership wants to hear. I've probably taken this process thing too far but really enjoy what happens when an image goes beyond rendition, the condensation of form and the enhanced sense of time that the layers of paint build into it. This means being willing to lose the sense of completion provided by one approach in order to develop a larger frame of reference. I like rendition as a portal, not a destination. A portal to where? Exactly. About 13.75x15.75 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Third layer on this seascape from New Jersey, there were some fun moments in developing this, a place or key in colour I haven't been before, needs a little more chroma and refulgence, layer four might complete it. About 9x15 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      Wanted to try one of the blue sky beach images as well. This is something I did from life in Ocracoke a few years back, so knew what to do here a little more. A lot to balance, a lot of colours in that sand. Wanted more from the sky but have to admit have never gotten so far with this type of sky before alla prima, so maybe I'll just use this as a study for a larger one. In life I like the simple happiness of this, and the slightly lumpy but saturated paint. Will probably let it sit a little more and then fiddle with the rhythm of the umbrella line in the middle. About 11x15.25 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



september 7
      

      I'm always glad to see September: it's incontrovertible proof that I've survived another August. Waxing moon, full moon in a couple days, this moon has been very demanding, a nudge, an itch: grow grow grow. A sultry week in which a lot of different things happened, and needed to be balanced. Did not get a lot of work done, but did get something new started in terms of landscape, something I've been thinking about for a long time, see below. Heat and humidity have finally cleared out this morning, possibly the end for the season. Continued to try to figure out Google Adwords for the book, this is interesting since they have decided what my book is about without having read it, and while they will allow all kinds of keywords in the system, they basically guide you to what works and what doesn't based on their sense of what's being advertized. Now, this is fine for most things, since their qualities are known, but if you have done or written something new, is inherently problematic, because it is a priori trying to make the new concept sit in the old frame of reference. Which it simply cannot do, since the new one is larger than the old one. But, never mind these petty nuances, I'll render unto Google what is Google's, keep trying to figure out ways to get more people to the book's page, the website numbers are up. Still need to re-do the website galleries, the length of the move has made these woefully out of date.

      

      So, if you grew up around Philadelphia, inevitably you went to the shore as a kid during the summer. This is the world of the New Jersey coastline, with it's endless broad beaches on a string of large, stable islands. When I grew up the shore was goofy, tacky, and fun, there were no casinos in Atlantic City, for example, just a bunch of old hotels on the boardwalk. But, returning this week for a few days, it was clear that the shore had grown up. I knew it would be different, but it was really different. This is a view of Avalon, which, along with Stone Harbor, populates a long, skinny island called Seven Mile Island below Atlantic City, before Cape May. So, yes, there's about seven miles of this now. I had really looked forward to taking photos of the houses I remembered, but almost all of them have been replaced. This shift is interesting. The neighborhood I grew up in in Philadelphia is basically unchanged, but here the change has been total. The new architecture is sort of like Le Corbusier meets Victorian gingerbread on both steroids and quaaludes, there were some houses I couldn't believe had been designed by an adult, let alone an architect. An interesting aspect of the shore used to be the dessert-like quality of most the yards. Most houses had pebbles instead of lawn, there were often arrangements of shells, or ornamental brickwork, there were almost no trees. But they've solved the water problem, it even tastes okay out of the tap now, and there's a brisk landscaping business going on, featuring all kinds of intensely flowering tropical plants. Being plants, they have their own redeeming virtues, even if subtlety is not among them. The area is still very family oriented, the old 5&10 at least is still resoundingly tacky, and you can still get old school East Coast Southern Italian food in a restaurant that plays nothing but Frank Sinatra tunes.



      


      Did find one house that reminded me of the old shore, there used to be a lot of these in pastel colours with empty pebble yards.



      


      The beach of course, remains the same, although they have wisely planted the dunes. The water was really clear, apparently due to the cold winter killing a lot of bacteria, saw a group of dolphins close in, really interesting rhythm as they arc out of the water, the occasional tail flip, everybody got close to the water's edge to watch them chase the bluefish. It was strangely emotional to be there, a beach I flew kites on as a kid.



      


      The human factor on the beach begins to get more intense as the day goes on. The assortment of stuff is fascinating, the bright colours contrasting with the general human inanition. Maybe all this stuff is peculiar to this place where whole families camp out for the day, many more umbrellas than before, even some tents, carts now for Dad to haul everything back and forth. There are still sand castles being made, enduring until the tide overwhelms them, still an endless mosaic of footprints in the sand.



      


      And most everybody still goes home as the sun goes down.



      


      This week was pretty cut up, but did get some work done before and after the shore. Kept going with the idea of a smaller proportion of a richer medium in the paint, with a little starch gel added as they seizing element, keeping the putty separate with the same medium added. This allows more dynamic range in terms of colour that is attenuated or left strong.



      


      First thing of the week, decided to do a second layer on the first version of this, based on what I learned from the second version, done last week. This still has significant issues but three things worked. The first is the chromatic complexity that comes from putting a cooler layer over a warmer layer. The second is using the second layer to transform the image, rather than to attempt to correct the first layer, something that has not been easy for me to get used to. The third is not trying to finish it, accepting the layer as part of a process, making the changes but leaving it open so there's more room for finishing to happen in it's own way. About 14x15.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      


      Had to try something of the beach yesterday, I did some work on Cape Cod years ago but this beach is more personal somehow. Late light image, tried this in a relatively low chroma palette that I think would have worked out better if I'd chosen the right blue. Still not sure what this blue is yet, but that's all part of working with something new. The lilacs I recently sold were made with some burnt plate oil in the putty, this stuff is often a double edged sword for me but I added just a drop or two to this medium to see if I could use it as a tack reducer, get a little more flow. The result was a kind of zugswang situation where the paint neither blended nor layered that well. This is actually rare, but, live by the medium experiment, die by the medium experiment. Still, the paint had tightened up a great deal later in the afternoon and I was able to do more. The idea here was to get at the feeling, find the major elements while, again, resisting the concept of finishing. At one time this would have bugged me, felt way incomplete, but now I have more respect for everything that needs to be balanced and harmonized, especially with something new, so it just seems like layer one, getting aquainted the situation. This dried overnight, more can happen now in layer two. About 9x15 inches, oil on Arches Huile.

      Great article here about the amazing natural transformation our bodies undergo in the water.



august 31
      

      New moon, definitely one that's asking for something new. Warm and sunny week, summer very slowly beginning to wind down here. Mostly took care of putting things away, not a home yet but everything is functional. Started working on an adwords campaign for the book, this is kind of like playing poker, will take a while to figure out but it won't be from lack of statistics. I'm hoping it might help the book become more widely known, but at the same time the book was not written as a mass market product, just as a record of what happened when I began to explore the materials from the perspective of technical art history. So, while I've loved developing the book and it has lots of friends now in many different countries, it's what I'm learning is called a complex sale. Meaning progress may necessarily be slow for some time to come.



      

      The studio is still a mess but I had to start working this week. Began with a simple putty approach but then went back to a little starch in the paint after a long hiatus. Used it with richer oil than usual, this worked out pretty well for the first time exploring a new idea, details below.

      There's a book about painting that was written along time ago by a doctor, a manuscript actually, it's handwritten on handmade paper, looks like something Hermione would consult secretly at 3 am. This book is getting more well known as interest in the materials develops. There's even a medium out now bearing this doctor's name. So, that must mean the medium is in the book. Well, no. Not only is this medium not in the book, neither are either of its major ingredients, to say nothing of the idea of combining its major ingredients. I'm pretty certain of this, having read the book from cover to cover for several years. The medium in question is basically a 19th century idea, soft resin combined with oil as a global addition to the paint, being marketed as a 17th century idea. Maroger tried the same thing, saying a mastic gel was in the book when it wasn't, and was called on it by A.E. Werner. Anyway, I'm sure everybody involved in this is well-meaning, and thinks of it as harmless, but this is where the nomenclature of painting ingredients becomes an unnecessary labyrinth. You buy reasonably priced "rose madder", but it has no rose madder in it. Well, you dummy! Real rose madder is expensive, not cheap. In fact, it exists, but it's called "genuine rose madder." Something called "lead white substitute" turns out to be, wait for it, titanium white. Burnt plate oil is marketed by both Grumbacher and Zecchi as sun oil. It goes on and on. Because there are no rules. And because manufacturers know that painters are not paying attention, that purchases are primarily made by impulse, that uniquely human combination of excitement and fear. So, by this logic, it's okay to imply any kind of lie as long as you don't label your lie "genuine". There have of course always been lies about painting materials; this was so endemic in England that one manual of the 19th century even listed the ways materials were most often sophisticated. Of course, this medium isn't sophisticated, but its marketing strategy is. Why can't we just tell the truth, and let that be enough? Perhaps because there is such a strong tendency to look for a new, of course simple, solution to what is in fact always a complex issue, in painting or in life.





      

       First peony of the series begun here, late light, holding to a slightly augmented earth colour palette, still like the concept. It's a little too warm overall now, a little weird, but more consolidated than it's ever been. About 12x13 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Later peony in the series that had lagged behind the others, I tend to work from worst to best, especially if I'm feeling iffy about what's going on. Actually a Vermont peony, photos taken in a big empty room in my old house, this came forward more with a simplified palette but made some larger changes and these will need to be restated. I like the personality of this peony but it's also a little elusive. About 13.5x15 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      From yesterday, another version of this image, smaller, thixotropic medium test using starch and thick oil, also wanted to see if stronger paint would work better, including stronger white, everything was conditioned at one part medium to three parts paint instead of the usual one to two. Used a simple chalk putty in this, conditioned the same way, but separately from the paint, allowing the option of more chromatic oomph. This worked, a good approach for alla prima or finishing. I like this version better than the first one, but also see ways that more could happen. More than anything, need to integrate the way the figure and drapery are painted, they're a little too different. Dry today, will probably do more to it, try to keep it loose but a little more developed. Another option would be to return to the original version first, using what I like better about this one as a guide. About 10x11.25 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Mounted and varnished this painting from 2011 for a potential client this week. After three years I still really like this, will be sad to see this go. But a sale always makes me want to replace what has been lost somehow. This was a three day extended alla prima marathon, slow drying medium using some commercial burnt plate oil. This is a material with an odd behavior, I always seem to fight it as much as not. But it doesn't yellow and does add saturation and mobility, and usually increases open time, even in small amounts. Returning to increased open time may be wise now, another day with the figure study above would have been helpful. We'll see, this moon is really restless so far, nothing is new enough for it. About 11x14 inches, oil on gessoed canvas on panel.



august 24
      

      Waning moon, new moon tomorrow, final week of the move, sort of emotional time, only living in one place again after five months. Pods arrived without a hitch, nothing damaged, had some nice kids help me unload them, it didn't take that long, realized I was a little possessed afterwards. Sense of accomplishment about having completed the move, but now the apartment is pretty full, will need lots of organization in the weeks ahead to make it functional. Still, it's a nicer space, will make more of a home than I've had since leaving here.



      

      Continued with the egg and larch balsam addition to the putty this week, started from scratch with a new formula using a little whole egg. These additions are small, in the five percent range, the concept comes from recent research into Lotto, with the egg-resin added to the putty medium. Got this to a place I liked doing layers on some small older work, this is often a good waning moon activity. Was a little hesitant about how "up" to paint them, they dried more quietly, something that does not happen, for example, using egg yolk alone. This type of thing can also be addressed by using proportionally less putty and more paint. I like the look of this surface better, though, articulate, poised between matte and gloss, so getting this formula the way I want it looks like it's worth pursuing.



      

      Image of Vermont from one of the recent trips, layer four on this one. Still not done but closer, had a nice sense of what to do in terms of shifting from sparkle to unity and back, was able to get a little more cohesion into the sky. This scale is still a little small, but just starting them bigger isn't the answer yet either. About 8.5x15 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      Image of lifting fog in September in Vermont, getting closer to what I want, balance of softness and sparkle, more to go but not that many layers on it. About 10x14 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      Small one with a composition I liked but which had gone awry. This is usually helpful, there's nothing to lose, it's just wrong. Good example of what this paint can do, I've never quite seen a surface like this. About 8x12 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



august 17
      

      Waning moon, spent most of the week in Vermont cleaning the house and loading the shipping containers. A sense of completion to finally getting this done. Moving is bizarre, but also sort of cleansing, asking "What's important?" at a more basic level than usual. As a kid I was always impatient with stuff, partly as a result of growing up in the Depression and partly by nature, my parents were moderately into stuff and I remember how much it bugged me. In a way it was their sense of class, in a way it was just manners, a Zen-like daily ritual they observed. This type of ritual is tricky, sometimes it can protect content, other times it can mask the fact that content doesn't really exist. And that's a long story. But I'm more the same way now, safeguarding stuff, but more because buying it again eats into working capitol than anything else. Anyway, being in Philadelphia sort of brings all this back up, the long rebellion against civilization that I've only recently begun to see in any perspective. But that's another story, or an ongoing one. The important thing is that the long chapter in Vermont, thirty-two years of rebellion, is now closed. In terms of change, this felt much larger than I thought it would, like I'm in fact here now, not in between two places. The containers arrive at the end of the week, and this small place is about to be very full of materials and paintings. Still, it's a nice space, it will be fun to turn it into a home. I left Vermont on a cool day, clearing after rain, low mobile clouds, a little of that autumnal robin's egg colour in the sky and an amazing sense of space in the air. More than summer, fall there meant a lot to me, but Vermont always remained a challenge, or an adventure, and did so for so long that I didn't realize that it never became a home. Home, on the other hand, is something Philadelphia is really good at, although, having grown up here, I had to leave to have any appreciation of that.



      

      Philadelphia was carved out of a forest, and that forest hasn't exactly surrendered. The trees are always growing, the sidewalks are always buckling. The city has a large park, Fairmount Park, running through it thanks to the foresight of William Penn. I grew up near an entrance to a relatively untamed part of this park, and have very happy memories of being there as a kid. Took a walk there this week to say hello again. Of course, it remembered me too, which was very nice.



      

      Got a chance to visit a famous house this week, the one known as Mother's House, by Robert Venturi (with probably more assistance from Denise Scott-Brown than is generally acknowledged, but let's skip lightly over the gender politics of architecture.) The front view is the iconic one, this is the rear one. The most amazing part of this house was the first floor interior, it is pretty small, but uses a wealth of spacial details to create an astonishing balance of nurture and a kind of playful largesse. This latter is sort of a Venturi-Scott Brown signature, it's strangely powerful to be in a building that has a light touch, even a light touch about its light touch. Anyway, I was kind of awed by the articulation of the space, its laconic artistry. It was a relief to learn that the building took five years to design, had gone through many permutations before arriving at informed simplicity.



      

      It was great to return to paint later this week, I really miss it after a while. Cleaned up, then thought about where I had been. But wasn't sure, and, since I was now somewhere else, just made something as a place to get started. Felt almost too strong, and it was kind of a disaster, see below, but did get things going again. In spite of keeping notes there are some "Oh yes, I remember, that doesn't really work" moments.



      

      There are paintings all over the place in the studio, most were made, but it seems like some of them just happened. I just have some pieces of 2x4 plywood mounted on keyboard stands for storage and these are not enough, so it will be good when I can set this up for real, probably over the coming weekend. There's a lot of work that I'd call over the hump, not bad or unresolved but not quite in the informed simplicity zone yet. There's a great quote by Blake, mild for once, about having to do too much before knowing what enough is. It will be interesting to see what happens this winter. I always wondered if there would be a day when I woke up and knew exactly what to do, the way, say, Modigliani knew exactly what to do, but it seems to be incremental: this year is better than last year, which was better than the year before. I guess if artistic resolution in realism is going to be alive, not just an empty ritual, there has to be evolution, a balance of certainty and uncertainty that occurs beyond a formula, in the moment. Or rather, in a succession of moments. I don't mind the process as, moment to moment, it is so interesting to tag along. Still there are occasional survival concerns as I see the process blithely meandering around as though I'll be alive forever. Although in larger terms that seems true, it would be a relief if, overall, the work continues to coalesce in the next decade. Maybe a greater sense of resolution is like a greater sense of home: more appreciated through loss and the subsequent work done to recapture it.



      

      Did two layers on this image from a small town in the Garfagnana before I left with a little larch balsam in the putty. An image I've done lots of versions of, not done but in a decent place. I looked at a nice book about painting by Birge Harrison this week called Landscape Painting, although it's also about the process of making paintings. He tells lots of anecdotes, and one of them was about a painter in Paris who didn't have much money and would never use much paint. He asked Harrison for a critique, and Harrison simply put out more paint on his palette, to his horror. Of course, he had no choice but to use it, and the painting sold quickly, eliminating his financial difficulties. And I agree, there's often something to be said for more paint as it tends to enhance unity and simpler forms. About 11x14 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

       Made this using the very old Strasbourg Method outlined in Eastlake, a little bit of hard resin varnish added to the paint. Hadn't done this in a long time, have learned that it's good to revisit things cyclically to see how they perform in the current context. In the official method, the paint is handmade, so the varnish seizes it tremendously. A little bone ash is then added to relax it. For this I just added a little sandarac varnish to the putty, sandarac is probably my favorite of the three and was the last one I made, I have some left that's pretty light. This was on a gessoed ground that I thought would be absorbent but wasn't, so it became goopier than intended. Trees in a park on the way to Mother's House, an iffy composition at best but I wanted to explore both more rococo paint and the concept of the local landscape. Dry overnight, but with the fiendish saturation of even a small amount of hard resin varnish, so an odd photo. Caught between various colour schemes and influence, charismatic but a total mess, it might be possible to save this later, simplify it without making it one of those modern flat and square landscapes, but for now I'll just move on. The liveliness of this approach combined with its depth might be good for finishing things that have become a little predictable, though, so the paint with a tiny amount of sandarac added to the putty will probably make a return engagement. About 10.5x12.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



august 10
      

       I'm in Vermont, packing up the last round. August can throw up arbitrary roadblocks, and there have been an amazing number of technical difficulties this week. I've been trying to iron out some stuff online and it's been so frustrating so long I'm going to cut this short before anything else goes wrong. I'll be back in Philadelphia next Sunday and try to put up something coherent then. Stay tuned, one more trip to go.



august 3
      

      New moon, a relatively mild week weather-wise leading back into some heat and humidity to come. Ten days over ninety Fahrenheit in July, not nearly as many are predicted in August, although in the past I've often found August to have its own special charm in terms of things going awry. One thing I keep noticing about Philadelphia is that the tree are a different colour green than in Vermont. Darker. Also, that this place was carved out of a forest, and that that forest has not given up, is still growing back. So, it's kind of interesting to feel like I'm in a city on the one hand, but that in many places the tiny backyard here, for example there's a strong sense of being held, protected, by the trees. As often with the new moon, a rocky start, nothing was new enough, but ended up with a new approach that I liked to the small landscape study. If you've been around dogs in the country, you know that they can seldom resist returning to that porcupine. In some ways, the small landscape study is the porcupine that I keep returning to, thinking this time I'll finally get it. At the same time, it does seem to be running out of quills, so maybe this can be termed progress.

      Finally got to the museum in town on Friday night. This is the museum I grew up with, so it's familiar, an old friend. Not all the galleries were available, but did see the 19th century French painting. A very different set of paintings that included an atmospheric twilight landscape by Chintreuil, a painter Delacroix liked whose work I'd never seen before. They also had some great Pissarros. He was really good at a certain colour scheme that involved stone colours with brighter colours emerging, there were several variations of this on a wall where each of his paintings was in a slightly different style, nice curating. A selection of Bonnards and Vuillards, nothing major by either painter, but really good smaller examples of their related yet unique personalities. An unfinished Klimt that was very interesting, the complex pattern well underway but still in progress. I'd always thought that Bonnard's tesserae idea came from older Flemish painting but maybe Klimt had something to do with it too. Also, a really nice Schiele, a Danae, great mysterious colour, and Schiele on his best behavior. They had the Sargent of the Luxembourg Gardens, kind of a guilty pleasure but really well painted, the background trees were just so well done, apparent blobs but full of life. Then a peculiar Sargent portrait, Frances Sherbourne Ridley Watts, very edgey, she looks like a butterfly pinned in a box, but it isn't overtly unkind. The shadow side of the face is really great in life, his dare to himself and it worked. There are some odd things happening in the paint, especially in the background, which feels more abandoned than completed, although this also gives the completed aspects of the painting more distinction. Everything was trumped in a way by the Van Gogh sunflower, this is the one with the turquoise background, copied by endless high school kids in art class, often used in close-up as the museum's logo. It's stark sincerity, maybe desperation, made everything else seem a little confected, a little arty. Van Gogh became a minister at one point, and in many of his paintings there's something of the rejection of the opulent for the humble, the dubious graces of society for the frank intensity of nature. In The Principles of Art Collingwood concludes that one of the most important purposes of actual art is prophetic: to remind or even warn a society about things which it would rather ignore. This can be social, as in Daumier or Millet, but easily shifts more towards the sacred or spiritual as the positive opposite of the materialism. As an approach, it is opposed to much popular painting of a given era, which is popular because it flatters the period's vanity about itself so well. Not flattering the public requires a thick hide, or an awareness of the silliness of the process, both of which probably motivated Manet. Delacroix stopped showing his work after some fierce criticism, Ensor became obsessed with depicting what he perceived as the insane superficiality of society: there are few paintings as bluntly scary as The Scandalized Masks. I guess this visit to the museum has me thinking about the painter's allegiances. What the painter owes society through the viewer, what the painter owes their own evolution, and how the painter chooses to ensure their own survival. There have been many different formulas worked out, ways of navigating through in one piece. There wasn't anything on display by Ingres or Bougueraeu, about as academic as it got was a nice small scene of peasant girls dancing around a fire in the evening by Jules Breton. Van Gogh's approach to balancing painting with survival, of course, did not work out well for him, and it sometimes seems like these paintings have been co-opted by a society that still has no idea what they are about. Or maybe knows, but plays the game anyway since abandoning it obviously didn't work out so well for Vincent. Or are these paintings quietly doing their subversive work, presenting total commitment, asking questions about the nature of reality that, whether consciously perceived or not, insinuate themselves into the viewer's awareness?


      

      I found out early on in the materials project was that I didn't remember as much as I thought I did. So, to avoid going around in circles, I started writing procedures down in a notebook. At first it was mostly medium recipes, then more about the procedure of given paintings. This is mostly what I do now: it's not a matter of making different materials anymore, but of different combinations, or different proportions. For a while I thought the craft part was coming to an end, but it's more like the experiments ending have allowed something different to begin. I'm not making the instruments anymore, just writing the score they're going to play. One of the things I ran into with adding a small amount of larch to the putty in the last few weeks was a melting of the medium's thixotropy. There are several ways this can be densified again: by more chalk, or by an oil that creates thixotropy again. The oil method is nicer, and there are several that will do it. A little bit of the original burnt plate oil works, but of course is a little hairy to make. Any very thick hand-refined oil works, the thicker the oil, the more seizure occurs. Another way is a very small addition of an oil saponified and made dense by sitting in a lead tray. I don't think this type of thixotropic seizure can be done using the thicker commercial oils, modern burnt plate oil, for example, has a strong leveling effect. Perhaps a little egg white in conjunction with a modern oil would give a similar look and feel to the putty.


      

      Leaded oil is of course not necessary, but it was a part of many aspects of older practice and I became intrigued years ago by the various historical recipes. My scientific friend Roland is also interested in exploring older materials in order to understand them better. I've been busy moving but Roland is on summer vacation from his university and sent me a great experiment working on variations of the formula for a leaded oil that is on page 300 of Eastlake, volume one. This is the one attributed to an "eminent painter, recently deceased," probably Wilkie, whose dates are right for the publication, and who held the position of Painter in Ordinary to the King. Anyway, Roland's experiment may confirm that this method of making a fast-drying, somewhat saponified oil might also have been used as a way to refine the oil.


      

      Did three layers on this study of Farr Cross from the most recent trip to Vermont. Did not want to return to these smaller studies, but am learning more from them about unity. Technically, this has been a little odd since it is drying down a bit and, in theory, shouldn't be. Feel like I understand where it should go next, denser paint, more of a balance between detail and atmosphere. This is often achieved with a rich and somewhat melting paint, that may be next. About 9x15 inches, oil on Arches Huile.


      

      Visited this favorite spot as well on the last trip. Did two layers on the painting, first one above, second one below. A more certain composition, the potential difficulties were simplifying the sky and the rock-filled low riverbed. First layer seemed a little red, the second seems a little blue green. Next will return to more of the colour scheme and oomph of the first one, and that may complete it. As is often the case, the first one looks more finished in the photo than it did in life. I'd love to get a lumpier version of this to feel complete but there was no question the following day that it wanted to go further. The second one has a finely scattered surface sheen that isn't hard to look at, but made it hard to photograph, took five before I got something reasonable. The usual influences, in life this feels like progress in terms of the balance of atmosphere, rendering, and presence of the paint. Will try to develop this approach further in the week to come before returning to Vermont for the final trip that will complete the move. It will be nice to actually live in one place again, and be able to focus that much more. When I returned here at the end of March, it was important to figure out what kind of work could happen in a very different environment. It's felt more hopeful to be here in terms of eventually finding an appropriate venue for the work. The process also feels in good shape for the better painting weather of autumn. About 9x15 inches, oil on Arches Huile.




july 27
      

      Last week of the moon, went to Vermont to finish cleaning and packing, had some unexpected help for which I am genuinely grateful. Found something in the studio from 2006 that looks really interesting, the first lnseed oil I refined, it has become unusually gelatinous, confirming yet again that aged hand-refined oil is different and may well have created paint rheologies that were misleading to subsequent researchers in their search for "the lost secret." On it goes, another piece of the puzzle, I get a kick out of stuff like this. New moon today, will drive back to Philadelphia with a car full of linseed oil.



july 20
      

      A sunny but less humid week, cooler mornings and evenings, easier to work. Waning moon, tried to get a lot done but began to feel tapped out later in the week, I'll go to Vermont for another round of moving in the week to come, last round before the finale. Since coming back to Philadelphia, have wanted to generate a body of work that is somehow more based on what I feel here, but at the same time the sense of what the images are capable of expands. I don't feel so much dissatisfied as that a given image simply isn't complete, that its journey isn't finished. There are painters historically who have defined finished succinctly, whose style is, for better or worse, a done deal. Then there are painters whose style evolves incrementally, or maybe in phases. Then there are painters who get involved in ongoing questions about style. I guess that, having grown up with a lot of style employed for its own sake in 20th century painting, I want to make sure that content doesn't get left at the station. Content is so important to completion, I'm always surprised at how effectively it has been marginalized as a foundation of the process. Perhaps because content, like the rabble at the palace gates, is so inconvenient. Of course, it is axiomatic that a given period will have its fads, take a lot of work seriously that art history doesn't. This is explored pretty effectively in print by R.G. Collingwood in The Principles of Art, written at the surprisingly early date of 1938. Collingwood is the first author I know to talk about the commodification of culture, differentiating between the classical definition of art that it is based in a personal emotional authenticity that then serves the larger whole of society and art that is a form of intellectual amusement, the cultural country club. He gets off some very good lines at the expense of this form of snobbery, but makes the larger point that actual art serves the important purpose of grounding a culture in truths it may be all too eager to avoid, that, without this call to order, a culture is only too apt to continue to believe its own propaganda. The largest point of all being that, after a certain point, a culture can cease to have a functional relationship with reality, and that this inevitably has consequences.



      

      Worked with two types of paint this week, one without resin and one with a little larch balsam. I keep these on different palettes just to make sure things stay straight. I'm not always thrilled with the look of the paint with resin in it but there are certain things it does quite well, just have to be patient and keep exploring how it can be engineered for more personality.



      

      One of the landscapes from Vermont with a little resin, ground this down lightly and put another layer on it in paint that was slightly richer, but also pretty thin for me. Liked how this worked out, something new, but want something a little denser to complete this. Am getting to understand how to do the treelet edges, this is very fun perhaps because it took me forever to figure it out technically. The general key with these is to make each layer slightly different than the preceding one, so they move back and forth between brighter and duller, or sun and fog, warmer and cooler. Don't want physical so much as atmospheric detail, have had some of these go into over a dozen layers so to be here at three feels like progress. The issue with this now is not so much the colour, a form of balance that the technique takes care of progressively, but how to integrate the sense of a softer atmosphere with the sense of a great deal of low key sparkle as the sun emerges. About 21x9.5 inches, oil on Arches Huile, I'll mount this on canvas soon to make it more stable.



      

      Have been working on a smaller version of this cheese for a long time, decided after putting yet another layer on it to start over. Not to abandon the first one, but to give it more breathing room by making a second one. Want to avoid too much specificity in this one, this is where I can go around in endless circles. Like where it is headed in mostly earth colours with a few brighter guest appearances, but no blue. About four layers of paint so far, 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen on panel.



      

      First peony in the recent series, did another quick layer on it, nothing too finicky, just an in-and-out round of overall touching up. Pretty close, in the zone where it's getting fun to work on, finding a little more each time. Still not sure about those red accents, more, less, darker, lighter, etc. otherwise it seems straightforward to complete now. About 12x14 inches, oil on gessoed paper mounted on canvas.



      

      Another layer on this one from last week, layer three. Consolidating, lost some oomph or liveliness but gained some substance. Maybe I lost the illusion that it was on its way clearly and gained the reality that there's something large still to be resolved. A little concerned that the dual shadows will simply be too prominent based on their geometry. Next round will be in looser paint again, tried this one with some blue in it, not sure blue is part of this approach. About 13.5x15 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Started this one this week, got two layers on it plus a little more on the flower itself. A reasonably wabi-sabi peony, but the most certain of these so far, the most poised, maybe also the one posing the most inscrutable question. As usual when something goes a little further somehow, will probably let this one sit a while, more to know what to leave alone than what to work on. I guess the thing I'm most interested in with these is using depiction to get beyond it, creating a seamless fabric of the personal and the universal. This is not exactly new but if I don't define the context, someone else eventually will. About 13.5x15 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Last beginning of the week, intrinsic energy of this particular moon on the wane. Somewhat more equivocal feeling, puzzled, entreaty, a peony that is a little tired of hearing about people being blown to bits, is wondering why this has to happen over and over and over again. Did three layers without really feeling that it was all that together, but didn't mind it, you can see more process as a result. Feel it's worth continuing, the ones with struggle have their own type of inner life, and it's nowhere near as confused as the first peony in the series was at this stage. About 13.5x15.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.








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