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.

july 26

      Waxing moon, lots of sun, still very warm but less humid week. Not the most cohesive week, I did a lot of layers on older work, and started a few new things that are pictured below. Still interested in developing a system that facilitates finishing, but this of course is turning into a process of its own. The heat sometimes generates more energy than focus, I find myself not knowing what's going on more often in the summer than the winter. But, when things happen, even if they're a little chaotic, there's always a reason, the process moves along even if I'm not sure where it's headed. It's important to be patient this time of year, especially in August, progress has historically been slow. Maybe it would be more accurate to say, felt slow, since something's always happening, the process is always accruing more information. I can guide this somewhat, but not control it. A fine line, but one thing I can tell right away at this point is whether I'm doing what the process wants.


      People generally know that egg white, turned into glair, was used in early manuscript painting, but it also looks like egg white may have been used in oil painting as well, see the book Rubens Unveiled for more on this. This makes sense, since it was readily available and known to be reliable. If you're curious about this, you can make a lean emulsion with a little egg white and a thicker oil, then use this where you might have used the thicker oil alone in a medium. I sometimes use this approach as a couch on small panels, where oil alone would move too much. It starts out a little hazy, but this clears as it sits. It typically produces more movement, but with more density and discretion, more adhesion, basically as though there were some resin in the paint. Egg yolk of course makes things matte in a hurry, and is for panels except in miniscule amounts. But egg white is fine for canvas too.


      Week three with the white lead experiment. I haven't been able to get this to a particularly warm or humid place, so it's going a little slowly. Still, more texture, more fissures this week, will harvest some next week and see what it's like at this stage ground in aged, hand-refined linseed oil.


      A photo Roland sent of his white lead at week six. He's got this outside I think, enclosed but still exposed to more heat and humidity. This is older lead, you can see that the metal was laminated, and is breaking up nicely along those lines. Don't think mine is going to do that, I may puncture it at intervals next time to get more exposure. The original plates were cast, giving a metal with a larger crystalline structure, therefore a pigment with a larger crystalline structure. Then there's horse manure producing formic acid, which speeds the process, I did add a little formic acid to mine. I'm not sure how much of this matters, at least it's not made from lead acetate in China the way all commercial pigment now is. But it's interesting to think about the differences between then and now in terms of the "accurate reconstruction." This is not really possible of course, but awareness of it may help a contemporary process have more dimension. I'm just looking for paint with character. Another thing that Roland pointed out via some research by Dr. Carlyle is that newer pigment is a slightly different composition than older pigment on the coil. So, I'm looking forward to seeing how this behaves as paint, maybe made with some four year old linseed oil.


      Did three layers on this small peony using a slightly different approach to the medium, with the idea of developing a system that would finish things more expeditiously. This involves setting up the paint to be more mobile, but not too mobile, thick, but not too thick, saturated, but not too saturated, etc. The system worked pretty well, so in theory this could be finished at this point, but the system is new, and each of the layers was slightly off in terms of how I had set it up, so there's more to go. Not an issue, if something ever worked out as planned the shock might well overwhelm the satisfaction. I'll consider the system and try it again with some tweaks. 11x14 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Another new start, wanted to make the roses image from last week again, try to get it in one layer, ask what that approach would entail. Slightly absorbent glue gesso, this is more work to start with, you can see from the brushstrokes that it really holds the paint, but very nice for getting more layers or development going in one sitting. I just anchor the major forms with this type of thing, nothing too detailed. The difference here was beginning with more lyrical colour, less value in monochrome, which I think helped.


      After day one it was a little dotty, too much discretion in the paint, the broken colour of the foreground and background competing too much with the flowers. Still, I wanted some of that. Cleaned it up a little the second day, there are some ways in which this will inform the first one pictured last week, also some things from the first one I will incorporate here, it feels little too isolated, a little too barren. Part of the fun of starting a new one, it's never the same. More to do here, but I'll go back to the first one next. About 13.5x15 inches, oil on gessoed paper.

july 19

      A little bit of a break in the heat this week, a few cooler mornings and evenings, now it's returned but it doesn't look like it's going to get worse here, just remain pretty consistent, I'm guessing the first high in the 70s will probably be later in September. Week of the new moon, tried some new things, with the usual checquered results. But made some headway in the end, came up with a new basic putty that I really like, details below. The goal is to keep working towards finishing things, but some of the solutions have gotten a little complicated. It's always good to keep things as simple as possible, so I'm excited about this new development.


      Long ago, the first paint I made and tubed was a methyl cellulose-cera colla paint, derived from some comments in Wehlte. This was like gouache with more body, easy to make bright small studies with. I'd always wanted to revisit the relatively ancient cera colla again in the context of the putty medium. So, made some again, this involves saponifying beeswax with ammonia or ammonium carbonate in water in a waterbath. I tried a small amount of it in a putty, and, like most of the water-soluble binders, it was very interesting, made things quite elastic. But, over a few days, this putty darkened from near white to the colour you see here in the bottom sample. Urgh. This might be by-products of polymerization, the acid oil reacting with the relatively basic cera colla. This isn't disastrous if it stops here, but it's not preferable either, I try to keep everything as non-yellowing as possible. So I began to think of a way to get a similar effect with other water-soluble ingredients in a putty. I've made a putty with egg white for many years, this is really useful, ended up adding a small amount of plain beeswax to it (in oil), and a small amount of methyl cellulose. I was tempted to use gum arabic for its more bouncy rheology, but gum arabic films have tended to darken a little bit over time. This isn't conclusive, could just be the fact that I wanted to use the paint quite translucently. Anyway, went with a small amount of the more reliable methyl cellulose. So, in the putty, maybe 4 percent egg white, a little more than 1 percent beeswax, and less than half a percent of methyl cellulose paste by volume of the oil. This wasn't quite the same, didn't have the elasticity of the cera colla medium, but it did have a solid working character, and definitely dried on the "up" side, which I've come to value if this is not too much at the expense of saturation. I wanted to mention these percentages, because, just as in cooking, there are ingredients whose character within the ensemble makes a big difference in very small amounts. The cera colla in oil experiment is probably not going to work, but it did bring something new into the system.


      Harvested some of the linseed oil that had been in half full bottles on the windowsill, let it go two months, this is about twice as thick as two weeks of aeration, but still a long way away from stand oil. There's really no nomenclature for oil thickness, except degrees Baume I guess, which would drive people crazy. I still use thin oil in putties for underpainting, but for finishing it needs to be thicker, at four years old this oil is non-yellowing and very stable. The thicker handmade oils aren't leveling the way stand oil is. I like this but if the viscosity becomes too much it can be released with a little bone ash. The handmade system is generally a thicker working system, adding bone ash for increased facility is part of the very early Strasbourg Manuscript.


      Week two of making white lead, it looks a little dry but it's working, first layer is beginning to break up, opening up new metal to go through the reaction. The process could probably use more heat, making more humidity, but it wouldn't really be secure outside and the last thing I'm interested in right now is generating more heat inside. There are a lot of tweaks that could happen with this, might be fun but I'm not sure yet what's going to be helpful. Seven more weeks to go, but only two weeks to some of the fabled nacreous plumbonacrite!


      Something I did with the cera colla enhanced putty. The cera colla of course helps keep the value scale brighter, and it hasn't lowered in tone to any extent. I may finish this with cera colla just to have an example to look at, but will still try to get the same effect a different way. Third layer, keeping it vague but with some detail and deeper colour. This is fun to work on because the first, smaller one became so frustrating. Still a small landscape but I like this scale, intimate but not finicky to work on. Farr Cross, early October, long view to the north. About 12.5x20.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      There are several of these, this is the oldest, also the one that needed the most help. I realized it might work well with the new basic putty I made this week, and it did. Farr Cross, the old road, first snow, December. About 9.5x19 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Another Vermont view I loved but which has taken some time to develop. Wanted to let it go its own way until the sense of shape and the sense of detail balanced one another naturally. Getting closer, looking forward to the next layer on this one, in life this has a nice quality. 10x17 inches, oil on gessoed panel.


      Layer five or six on this one, it's been kind of a puzzle but is slowly going to a more interesting place. 14.5x16 inches, oil on gessoed paper, time to mount this on canvas.


      An older floral that has been close a few times,and gone awry just as often. Put a layer on it using the new putty, just concentrated on bringing it back into the land of the living, which meant working on the roses more than anything else. Have some ideas for the next layer, this is always better than not having a clue. About 13x15 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.

july 12

      Week of humid, brooding weather that finally broke with a large thunderstorm, cooler mornings the last few days and less sticky, high summer, all the little local gardens are riots of colour, caricatures of enthusiasm, flowers all over the pavement in some places. Waning moon, usually a little less oomph available for the work at this time. So, chugged along, lots of summer energy but not that focused. Want to keep going with the more atmospheric work, but also want to finish the better work in progress, much of which is more realistic. I guess I don't see realism as an issue as long as it's a means rather than didactic. Mounted some work on panels, this seems to require a certain mood, combination of optimism and precision, and did some finishing layers. Am continuing to work with wax because of the way it keeps the colour brighter, also did some work with egg yolk for the first time in a while, another ingredient that keeps layers vivid, although just on panels. Felt enthusiastic about the progress of the white lead project and began a few other new things technically. Actually had to buy some materials, mua-ha-ha, more possibilities! Of course, cue voice of reason, there's always a balance here between wanting to learn more, and what is actually going to be helpful to the process. Of course, there's really no way to know what's helpful until it's been experienced for some time. I'll sometimes think, Wait, what about... and go back to something older with a new approach. So, the process goes around in circles, but I guess it's more of a spiral, renewing itself through a combination of the new with the old. This is similar to the combination of thesis and antithesis producing a synthesis. It's unfortunate that this word has come to be associated with things that are substitutes, because its original meaning focuses on the creative reconciliation of opposites in an approach that is not a compromise, but in fact new. The permutations of this are endless, but necessarily happen one at a time. This can relate to anything in the process, from the composition of the medium to the frame of reference for the images themselves.


      Day five of the white lead project, warm overall cast to the photo from the floor. The pattern of blisters on the metal will break open next, revealing new metal to be changed. There's something different near the bottom of the sheet, just above the acetic acid, more fluffy aggregations of crystals.


      If there's one thing I'd love to fix in terms of misinformation, it's about the colour of the oil. The original colour of linseed oil is fugitive: it has nothing to do with the final colour. Linseed oil tends to dry without yellowing based on a combination of a couple factors: it needs to be cold-pressed, it needs to be refined, it helps further if it is aged in the light. An oil that is bleached is done so with bleaching clay, this is not a bad process, but if the bleaching is done to an unrefined oil, the oil is probably going to darken significantly over time regardless of its original colour. So, here's a photo of some oil I refined in January 2013 in Vermont using snow. This is a great process if you happen to have snow. This is oil from the same batch. As you can see, two of them are clear, and two of them are still yellow. But there is no difference in the way they were processed! So, if you are interested in the quality of the oil, concentrate on cold-pressed and refined. If you want to refined the oil yourself, start with cold-pressed and unrefined. The other thing I want to say is that spike lavender is not, repeat NOT, NOT, NOT, non-toxic. The people who are marketing it this way are telling a dangerous half truth that could have significant consequences for your health.


      Another layer on this one from Ocracoke, a little better overall but not much. I got too careful because I liked the sky and didn't quite know how to get the dunes into the same key. This is a function of the medium, this has enough information, need to put a layer on it with much more oomph. About 12x21 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Second layer on this one from Farr Cross, a long time ago. Simplified it in a relatively lean putty, maybe too much sky but that's easy to fix. Will move to more saturated paint next. About 13x20.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



Smaller version of the above image, this is interesting to keep going with now and then. Close to done but this is when it's most interesting to keep going. About 8x11.75 inches, oil on gessoed paper over canvas on panel.


      Same spot, about a decade later, dry spell in early September. A little more saturated, also almost done, therefore fun to play with. About 8x14 inches, oil on gessoed paper over canvas on panel.


      Image from the Garfagnana above Lucca, study for a larger one that is actually better at this point. Want to see if I can get articulation in all the values, close to done but it's been close before. About 9x12.75 inches, oil on Arches Huile over panel.


      The therapy image from the Mugello, something from 2011 that came out well in the first layer, tremendously articulated surface I really liked when it was new. But it ended up a little subfusc over time, a function of the paint being on the lean side, with a lower chroma palette, everything cut with chalk, etc. It's tricky to decide if you're going to use a rich medium and try to finish it, or a leaner one to set it up for layers. Somewhat nacreous look from a thin putty couch, not done but on its way somewhere new. 8x13 inches, oil on gessoed paper over canvas on panel.


      One thing I swore I'd never get involved in is pet portraiture, much less memorial pet portraiture, but when your old friends ask you, it's hard to say no. This dog was a semi-reformed biter who went back to his old ways and had to be put down, a situation I felt a lot of sympathy with, many days I'd just love to take a chunk out of someone. So, this was interesting to start, then was damaged in the move, and I just got back to it this week after a nudge from Vermont. This began with some egg yolk in the paint, and I continued that way, using a mixture of egg yolk and oil that had been in the fridge for several months. So, basically a mayonnaise, this works to preserve an egg yolk, the thicker the oil, the better in terms of shelf life. Balanced the egg part out with a little beeswax and damar in oil. Don't have much experience with this combination but this medium was close to right, just a little too tight for the kind of fusion needed in transitions with something like this: a function of the egg yolk, not anything else, another testimony to the power of egg yolk as an ingredient. Mostly just did corrections, more of this to come, the nose is a little too far to the right still, etc. Would love to finish this in the next layer but have a feeling it will simply go half way to the wall again. This is okay, a different situation offering a lot to learn. 14.5x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.

july 8

      Finally got everything together to begin the white lead process detailed in this video by Attila Gazo of Master Pigments. Following Roland's advice, I pounded the sheets of lead on both sides with a hammer to open up the industrially smushed surface, also scored it with the claw of the hammer. It would be very easy to perforate with an awl too, maybe next time. Photo here of the process after about 12 hours. Only 2148 hours to go!

july 5

      Full moon last Tuesday, relatively mild week here compared to Europe. Summer only gathering force, the heat seems to make things more intense, even a little desperate, did the best I could but a natural 65F remains the ideal temperature to work in. At the halfway point of the year, am not done yet but could not have made these paintings six months ago. Turned the corner with a few images as well, and started a few more at twenty or so inches across. Still need to be patient, moderate, it will only be reliably cooler here in about three months. It is harder to be even moderately enlightened in the heat, the various daily challenges lose their redeeming humor. At the same time, am sort of getting used to it, letting less be enough. Will being, not doing, ever be my first joy? Haha, probably not with painting around. Saw Inside Out, a complex movie with good intentions and some interesting places but too much of the Harry Potter style of manipulation for me. There was no need. Had a great dinner downtown last night with friends at a reasonably fancy Cuban restaurant, solidly homey but inventive menu including pineapple guacamole with plaintain chips and yucca fries with cilantro-caper aioli, yikes, very well done for a larger place.


      Roland sent me some very interesting research this week about the action of acetic acid on lead metal in the presence of lots of carbon dioxide. The research found that several different compounds are formed, all of which are generally called "lead white," but all of which have slightly different compositions and behaviors. So, if the pigment were made commercially, it was made up of the end compound, a variable mix of mostly carbonate and hydroxide, but if the pigment were made by the painter, it could be harvested at various stages, giving access to pigments with different behaviors. This is an extreme close-up Roland made of crystals of initial litharge (lead oxide) being transformed into another intermediate stage, plumbonacrite Pb5O(CO3)3(OH)2. Roland feels plumbonacrite may be important for making a white that is mobile and nacreous. I have almost all my materials together to do my own version of this experiment, will get that underway this week. This is the video Attila Gazo put up about making lead white.


      Sometimes it takes a long time to figure out if something is helpful or not. The idea here was to see if there might be a non-toxic way of making an oil dry more quickly without using a metallic salt in solvent. Here's a sample of hand-refined linseed oil that I added a little zirconium silicate to, the pottery material called Zircopax. I wanted to see if zirconium would help the drying rate and couldn't get zirconium carbonate, this must be in some way dangerous. In theory, zirconium silicate wouldn't do much to the oil, but I'm not sure. This took quite a long time to clear, this is not recommended with commercial oils as these can take even longer, but has also become much thicker than it should be in a bottle this full. On the other hand, the cork is not the best way to seal something from oxygen. I want to try this again, thicker oil is getting more and more important to the process.


      Got two more layers on this image from Ocracoke, the unspoiled island tip of the Outer Banks. Better in life than here, pretty happy with where the sky is, just need to get the bottom half playing in the same key. There's lots of detail in the dunes, not sure how much of it is necessary, just need some reflected light and more sense of dimension. About 12x21 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      My recurring therapy image from the Mugello. This is one that had a really strong first and second layer, but still didn't quite feel done, a little too warm, a little too drab. Used a relatively dense paint this time, wanted to get at that feeling of light cascading and reflecting everywhere. This took a good photo, light coming from the right as it was that morning, but in life it's a little cool and bright. Although this is exactly what tends to be diminished in oil paintings over time I'm not sure this will move much given how this layer was made. About 13x20 inches, oil on gessoed paper mounted on canvas. I'll eventually put this on a panel before framing it, the paper straight on the panel looks a little mechanical, the canvas interlayer makes it softer.


      Started this image from Farr Cross in Vermont at the larger scale, a place I loved and have lots of nice images of from over the years, but which has really been difficult to resolve in paint. This is something I tried but never got at the smaller scale, so was pretty careful, just blocked in the major shapes in thinly. We'll see where this goes. About 12.5x20.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Another start from an older image from Farr Cross. An evening I painted this scene and took photos of it, so there's sort of two sets of images. Removed the treelet on the left from the last version, decided to put it into this one but it seems intrusive, makes the field too focal, may have to leave. Not the most inspired beginning but it's all there, all that's needed at this point. About 13x20.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.

june 28

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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




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

june 21

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




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


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


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


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

june 14

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

june 11

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


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

june 10

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

june 7

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

may 31

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



may 24

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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

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