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




august 31
      

      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 it was not written as a mass market text, 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 all over the planet, 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. Started 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 well for the first time exploring an idea, details below.

      There's a book about painting that was written along time ago by a doctor. There's a medium out now bearing this doctor's name. The problem is, 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. This medium is basically a 19th century idea, being marketed as a 17th century idea. Maroger tried the same thing. Anyway, I'm sure everybody involved in this thinks of it as a harmless commercial venture, 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. 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. It goes on and on, because there are no rules, and manufacturers know that painters are not paying attention, that purchase is by impulse. So, I guess 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, one English 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, unfortunately, is.





      

      Started here this week after getting the studio marginally in order. First peony of the series begun here, late light, still like the concept. It's a little weird now but more consolidated than it's ever been. About 12x13 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Later peony in the series, actually a Vermont peony, 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 option for alla prima or finishing. I like this version better than the first one, but also see ways that more could happen. 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 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. 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.



july 13
      

      Week of the full moon, pretty warm and humid week, but, like the cold in Vermont, I'm getting used to it. Lots of thunderstorms predicted that didn't happen, although the one that did brought down several big trees. Trees here are big compared to Vermont, saw a car in the neighborhood that had been crushed by a falling primary limb. Don't you think the quiet chain saw is a concept long overdue? The racket when the sound is reflected among all the houses is incredible. Lots of energy for the work, just let it happen, had an official good day on Friday heading into the full moon. Started several new things, took photos of the best and the worst of those in addition to things that are nearer completion.



      

      Layer three on this one, working to balance more and less saturated greens, get that living quality of morning fog in the process of lifting. This morning has always meant a tremendous amount to me, an incredible sense of dawning possibility. After sixteen years, might almost understand it well enough at this point to make a larger one. I have a friend whose teacher in graduate school told them there has never been a good green painting. This is similar to the famous Roger Frye comment that yellow-green is simply not an artistic colour. Find myself thinking about this sort of comment while working on this, glad that my life had conspired to make that sort of pronouncement impossible. I really like this one in life so of course it didn't take a good photograph. About 21x9.5 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      The overlook on the way to Farr Cross, I made a nice small version of this, then a larger version so bad it seemed best to destroy it. Mid-size version, a good example of getting so involved in mapping it out that the feeling gets left on the platform. I liked mapping it out, but there's more to find. Frustrated with this now but that's usually what moves things forward, the next layer will feature denser paint and some transformation. About 20x12 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      Did some work on white peonies this week. Started this in June, layer five or six, getting to the point where I like it, a nice balance of painterly paint and observation. More to go, but this one seems to have gone further somehow. Changed to the Princeton 6300 instead of the 6100, this made a difference. The 6100 is white synthetic, the 6300 is also synthetic but a little more like bristle, but still finer working than bristle. I'm being encouraged to talk more about how I feel about these paintings. This is of course difficult, since they are incredibly personal, a way to communicate something deeply but also optionally, but I'm going to try. The white peony is something I became fascinated by a long time ago as a symbol of the divine feminine, the opposite of the vengeful dessert god concept we know so well. The flower of course has its own cosmic personality as well, like dogs where roses are like cats, joyous, goofy, so happy to bloom they just fall over. I especially like the way this one is bowing formally to the light. I've always been a great believer in the medieval concept of everything having a divine signature, remember being shocked as a kid that this was not how everyone felt, so nature isn't just stuff, it's metaphor. In some ways it seems didactic to talk about this, like its either apparent that this was conceived as something other than rendition, or its not. On the other hand, if the painter doesn't explain it, the critics assuredly will! About 12x14 inches, oil on gessoed paper mounted on canvas.



      

      Started this one a few days ago, did a mapping pass in thin paint in the afternoon, then a fuller pass the next day, still in paint that is a little more mobile. The 6300 is again helping here, more possibility to draw with the tip of the brush. Don't want to rely on the charismatic swoosh type of paint handling too much, but a little of it is fun. There's more confidence in this, or at least of knowing what I usually do that doesn't work. Thinner and more mobile paint is helping, it is simply more correctable both in the moment and in the next layer. Not done, but on its way, lighter, a good balance for the more earnest feeling of the peony above. It is interesting how specific and subterranean influences can be. The last time I went to the Metropolitan, I was really taken by the Lawrence portrait of the comic actress Ellen Farren, a painting I would have been unable to take seriously a decade ago. A fascinating portrait that is both daring and casual, she's shy yet confident, and the quality of the paint in the head is amazingly alive. Lawrence can go over the top, and he does this in the massive white impasto of her dress, but the sense of the person herself is thoughtful, a little impish but restrained. Anyway, realized while working on this that it was influenced by the feeling of that portrait. About 13.5x15 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Example of an earlier peony, the flower had spontaneously grown too much in a previous version so I mapped this one carefully in thin paint over many layers. Ontbijtje type palette, worked on it a little this week, think it's worth pursuing, will hopefully be able to get it more informed by the more recent approach as it develops. More ebullience, oops, more restraint, the endless möbius in these. About 13x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Something small that has hovered near completion for a few layers now. Not quite done, but close, this stage is very fun if I don't put it on the clock. About 11x12 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



july 6
      

      First week of the moon, the work jumped around a bit at first, then settled down. Lovely yesterday and today, but some sultry days and thunderstorms earlier ahead of Arthur moving up the coast, the cat set a world record for motionlessness by the fan. When I was a kid, my mother would sometimes announce breathlessly on returning to the house, "It's like a sauna out there!" as though experiencing this for the very first time. I heard someone in the co-op say exactly the same thing this week, exactly the same way, so it must be a philogism. The heat used to really bother me growing up, it was almost like a gratuitous insult, but it doesn't make me nearly as grumpy now. Like the cold, it's important to get out in it, rather than retreat. Not as much can happen in a given day, it's more a matter of picking the most important things, but that's okay, the theater of summer. Wanted to get grounded in the work again after two weeks of packing in Vermont, and this week helped. Still have to go back to Vermont one more time, probably in a week. Some progress in terms of developing a system that facilitates finishing at long last, would love to feel something conclusive about the work here before I go – like it's really set up to kick total butt – but know that has to happen at its own pace. Still, it feels like the ongoing attempt to re-balance process with product continues to slowly gather momentum. Once I could stop painting long enough to breathe I got concerned about the 20th century concept of the artist as mimeograph machine, since my work seemed to embody its limitations. This began to happen in 2002 or so. Exploring more about process and the materials wrote the book, but otherwise I probably took it too far. Not that anything else could have occurred, it all seems to happen for a reason.



      

      One of the things that I'm more aware of coming back to Mt. Airy is the architecture. There are lots of really nice larger stone houses that have a European influence, then at the other end there's the cookie-cutter twin row houses. But here's a small row house development from early in the 20th century that was really creative. There are three different house designs, two twins, then a single with a peak between them. The single becomes a double in the series, I still can't figure out a pattern in the way they built them, it may have been that the buyer had their choice of three designs, even in combination. It was nice that they avoided the Philadelphia Tudor style in the middle design, these were popular but are kind of goofy. The Hobbity design on the left is pretty unique, this is apparently German art nouveau influenced and features roof slates that are chunky and both different sizes and colours.



      

      Returned in the last few weeks to something that worked a while ago, a small amount of larch balsam added to the putty. Maybe five percent by volume, so the amount in the actual paint is about two percent. I like this as a way of making a dense putty more mobile, there's a decrease in thixotropy but an increase in sequestering, the paint dries more as it is placed in layers, rather than in or down. I'm not the biggest fan of resin, or maybe of its almost ubiquitous overuse these days when it gets used, but technical art history does report "small amounts" of pine resin in paintings that are fine after several centuries, so I'm going with that concept here. It gets things done, but I'm a little conflicted about the way it saturates the paint, I like oil better for this, so this approach may be temporary. Also, it's always fascinating to find ways to emulate resin without it, so that may be next.



      

      Another local scene, the same one as last week but slightly different view and sunny day. Lots of relatively dense paint in two layers on a relatively textured ground, but it could go even further. The issue is how to simplify the information, what to leave in, what to take out. This type of image might be a prime candidate for some ink studies. I like the first one better overall but this one is going somewhere a little more lyrical that might have potential. I'll let it sit and do more of these as they occur. About 9.5x12 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Put two more layers on the small squash from last week. This is set up, but don't love the composition, and it still needs some general adjustment, might take a few more layers to complete. I'd like to avoid too much detail in fine paint, the sort of thing that can just go on and on, so will keep doing this with paint that has more body and see what happens. About 8x13 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Put a second layer on the small study of treelets in the fog from last week. Like this better, but still see more that could be done without getting into detail, which is interesting. About 6x13 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Started a larger version of the treelets in the fog image and got three layers on it. Envisioned this as a copy of the small one, loose and atmospheric, but that just did not want to happen. An example of best laid plans, these images often have a will of their own. Maybe next time, or maybe the larger scale just defines something different. I'll keep going with this, there's a nice balance of detail and atmosphere coming, would like to take it further, resolve the leaf pattern edge situation more. About 9.5x21 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      Larger start on something that worked out at the smaller scale, setting this up in big pieces with recession but in relatively thin paint. Tuscany, a drive-by on the highway but I couldn't resist and if you can't, there's usually a reason. My goal here is three layers, but who knows? It's nice to have broken out of the small scale for these, that only worked up to a point. About 13x18 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      Back in Philadelphia this week. Warm and sunny, unpacked and got back into the work a little bit here. The week included the bitter end of the old moon and the new moon, this is always an interesting transition in terms of energy. Made a technical change, small but significant, more significant than I thought it could be, details below. Showing once again that there's always more to discover. A given territory can be explored, but become new again through applying what's been learned since it was visited. But this always comes as a surprise, since I thought I knew about that place already. A new beginning brings up the perennial tension or dialogue between certainty and uncertainty, the known and the unknown, the plan and the moment. I see planning as the diving board, allowing more air to be attained. What happens in the air is still a function of the creative process, and still beyond conscious control. It's true that planning involves risk, but it's also true that it supplies a developmental tension that is unavailable otherwise. Oh well, I guess in larger terms it's all a matter of taste and opinion. Yet, these are areas where feelings run quite deep. Perhaps this opinion, being nuanced, is intrinsically invalid in the current arena. Another reason to just make the work and run.



      

      I correspond with some people who have gotten into working with the oil. I admit that this is pretty geeky, but the more information we can accrue as a group, the more we'll be able to pass on to the future. Anyway, some interesting things are going on. This is one of them, a photo of some oil washed by Craig Svare. The original idea was to let the oil sit on water in the light in a wide container for a year as a way of refining it. Then Craig had to move, so he decided to wash the oil in plain water and see what would happen. So, this is a photo of the oil after that wash. If you've ever washed oil in water, you know that a great deal has been removed in one wash as a result of the oil sitting on water for four months. So, this sitting on water idea may well have application if there's no immediate need for the oil.






      

      There are lots of different kinds of urban landscapes around here, Mt Airy is moderately prosperous, but there's still an empty lot here and there, a sketchy or lost area. This one is on a corner, really too small to do much with, so has remained for decades. The area is compelling for me in general since I grew up here, but there's a lot to learn about the art of it, what to leave in, what to take out. It's easier to invent or alter architecture than trees or clouds, but the whole thing still has to work as a transformation. Based I think on the feeling of a Boldini study of the outskirts of Paris in the Gere collection I've always liked. Started this last week, first one in a while to use resin in the putty. Added a very small amount, but this was enough to create a more relaxed and sticky paint on a ground with fine sand that held a lot. The paint was dry the next day, a little bit of a surprise since the resin was larch balsam, but it's pretty warm, and I only used a little bit. Came back with another layer that fixed a few small things, this one seems finished. A little moody, a bright overcast day that seemed very Philadelphia, wanted to see if I could get at the whole "ruins in the landscape" thing of the nineteenth century without being sentimental or didactic. Detail below, about twice life size. About 9.5x13.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.





      

      Layer three on this peony, it was close in layer one but not really there so I decided to just go in again without pausing. This is always a question: the first layer contains a lot of good energy, but may not contain closure. It's been solved by scraping back – Manet, Morandi, in different ways – or by adding more paint – Rembrandt, Monet, again in different ways. I don't mind how long it takes, since the puzzle long since ceased to be agonizing, and the whole 20th century worship of spontaneity alone seems to be another form of limitation. But, realistically, I'm running out of time, so I'm trying to figure out a way out of the endless loop of development with these. I'm kind of fascinated by the lumpiness of this, its ungainliness, the antithesis of the usual obsequious floral. Next layer might be conclusive, just need to remember to pummel it more, caress it less. About 13x15 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Returned to the use of a little resin, a favorite image, separate but on the same road. Made this from a tiny old pastel rather than the photo, a feeling-first approach, although I know the photo pretty well after sixteen years. Fine broken surface, cycling back and forth in the triad for the most atmosphere. Pushed the medium to see how much it would layer, this depends a little on the ground too. I'll do more to this but it was fun, a good step towards creative production. I'd love to figure out a way to do exactly this without resin, not critical technically but it's always been possible in the past so we'll see. About 7x13 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



      

      Last beginning of the week, an older image I've been wanting to do again. Same paint with a little resin, different ground and thinner application. This one had some time constraints on it, was just able to set it up. In some ways, this is a good idea, allows more consideration of the finishing procedure by factoring in more time. Earth colours plus a little warm and cool blue, an old favorite. About 8x14 inches, oil on gessoed paper.

      So, as is often the case, the new moon brought on something new. In a way it's old, a recasting of an approach I used years ago with damar and beeswax, but I like the look of this paint better, look forward to developing further it this week. The idea now is to accept mortality and find a way to complete paintings in days or weeks, rather than years. I was glad to do the research necessary for the book, and feel happy about the book's reception by painters who have read it. But it's time to let the research part rest and just make work with what I've learned.



june 23
      

      After endless packing and cleaning in Vermont, I came back to Philadelphia on Saturday. Still not done there, but the worst is over. Everybody in Vermont was really nice, but it was hard to be away from here. I sort of needed to recover for a few days, not so much from the trip but from the sense of dislocation. Did a small painting today based on some of the ideas that have been rattling around for the last few weeks. Waning moon, not the best time to begin things as a rule, but I had a strong feeling about the image and it didn't come out badly. Always hard to tell in the twilight what it's going to look like the next day, but it's at least a step forward. Even more than spring, there's an emotional sense of remembering to the summer here as I go out and do errands on the same streets where I grew up. The light is different here, the greens are different here, old but new. I don't feel nostalgia, certainly don't want to grow up here again, and have no anti-arcadian illusions about the larger metropolis. But the neighborhood itself is different. Maybe it's just a sense of appreciation, of getting a little closer to the heart of a place after so much time away.



june 15
      

      Full moon this week, pretty much solid warm rain here, chilly now, the sun is trying to come out this morning again after a few hours yesterday. Ah, Vermont. People at the hardware store were talking about how much they wanted to mow their lawns. The lawn as personal-communal sacrament, nature appropriately tamed and sanitized. Things here are a strangely uniform green, on the yellow side and very saturated. Looking back, a lot got done this week, had spirited help from some good friends. Volunteers when you're moving are friends indeed. There's a big pile of boxes downstairs, all the oil and books are packed, and I made a major dump run. The last time I went to the dump was a long time ago, at that point they were still being pretty evangelical, and paranoid about what people were throwing out. Now they're more accepting that trash happens, that the cycle cannot be broken at the end. It was a great relief to just unload the car and pay a pittance for the priviledge. There's a lot more packing to do, I still need to organize a lot of paintings, but everything else is simple. I guess most importantly, the sense of the house as a labyrinthian but somehow integral whole has been removed, the only logical goal is to keep boxing, cleaning, chucking. As with all larger undertakings, it's daunting in terms of envisioning the goal, but not so bad when it gets broken down into manageable increments. I've never been that much of a stuff person, but this house was large, and so, by an all too human logic, it filled up. Living in Mt. Airy for the past few months with very little in the way of possesions has actually been kind of nice. An empty room has an amazingly luxurious quality to the space, I can only use one teacup at a time, a small amount of clothing is easier to manage than my extensive collection of rags, etc. My significant other did succeed in instituting a stealth wardrobe upgrade over the last few months, so I'm walking around here in clothes less than ten years old. I've been reading an interesting book called Loving What Is by Byron Katie. It's a blunt but creative mix of classical Stoicism, especially Epictetus, Buddhism, and work on the shadow side of the personality through projecting it emotionally, rather than denying it. Her term for showing up in the present is doing the dishes. I could relate to this from cooking, when, in the end, chopping onions was much easier, meant much more, than in the beginning. So, the same thing holds true for packing: it's there, it's what needs to happen, I encounter pockets of whining but know it's easier to just do it.

       Nothing happened in the work this week, although I did manage to take pictures of more peonies. Still, I've been going through the site, unearthing things from deep within the dig, and have found a few interesting shards to consider. At this point, the work doesn't seem to change by adding new things, but by discovering new levels of what's already there. Partly this has to do with learning more about colour, and partly to do with learning more about paint. The two combine to make the subject matter itself new again. Peonies could end personally, but in larger terms could never really be finished, more would always be possible stylistically if the interest continued. So, along with the packing, there's paint rheology, paint layers, and how they might next be combined.



      

      Something from 1998 I could never bear to finish, but could't throw out either. I like the figure of a few weeks ago (below) better but this is a pose I'd like to revisit, maybe a little bigger. This is about 14x14 inches, oil on gessoed panel, single layer of a damar, stand oil, and beeswax medium.





june 8
      

      Waxing moon, lots of energy for the lots of things that are going on. Didn't get much work done this week. Decided to grind down the first layer on last week's peony and try again. This was controversial locally but I felt it wasn't done so there was nothing to do but start over. It feels better, but, as always in layer two, a little tight. The layers seem to work that way: expansion, contraction. Had more peonies come into my life and took a lot of photos of them, began one on Friday that was looser. I think this may be the way to go with a more complex subject, or at least one I have difficulty simplifying. Build the art in with the first layer, but don't do too much in terms of detail. This way, the second layer -- inevitably tighter for me -- won't get too tight. Anyway, this second image was moodier, more atmospheric, and I liked it better. Although there were time constraints and I decided to use commercial paint, which I'm sort of conflicted about. Drove back to Vermont yesterday to start the final packing. Stopped off in Bennington to meet George O'Hanlon of Natural Pigments, and Micheal Harding of the eponymous paints. These are pretty different people making very different types of paint, both quite high quality. George is interested in earth and historical colours, and Micheal is making dense, additive free concentrates that literally glow in samples. He had several large piles of paint on his table: red, yellow, green and blue, it was an arresting display. They were a little weary after the trade show, perhaps of patiently explaining endlessly that Worth & Nutting no longer makes the best art materials in the world. Micheal delivered a Pythonesque rant about painters wanting great paint for nothing. I had a good talk with George about various technical matters, and finally saw the Mayan blue in person, indigo processed with attapulgite to be more permanent. Then it was two more hours up Route 7 to Middlebury. It was a lovely day, Vermont being sparkling, well-behaved, but I noticed a lack of engagement and think that at this point, my sense of home has shifted to Mt. Airy. A lot of packing and clean up awaits in the next few weeks, but it doesn't seem as daunting now. This is something I've been noticing lately: a lot needs to happen, but the way to accomplish it seems to always arrive on time. I keep remembering an interesting image from the trip to Virginia last week. Saw all kinds of wonderful things at the botanical gardens in Richmind, but at one point was looking at a pool with water plants and a large pollywog swam into view, very close, looking right up at me. It was at the stage where it had arms, and it's head was getting more broad and frog-like. It made me wonder if I'm going through a similar metamorphosis, about halfway done. I don't really know who or what the end result will be, just that it's happening. Part of me would like to know more, or maybe control the process more. But it seems like the larger issue is to let go of who I was, an identity that had become outmoded over time, and let something creative happen not just at the easel, but in a larger frame of reference.





may 30
      

      Mini-news before a trip of a few days to Maryland and Virginia with many different elements, none of them painting-related. Even if you don't have that much travel prep to do, there's always some sort of background buzz about a trip that makes it more complex to concentrate. In general I'm doing okay with having more balls in the air, it seems to be what's being requested, the next step. One plus is that simply being happy to have handled everything without mishap does take the edge off of trying to do any one thing perfectly. Week of the new moon, the usual gentle lunacy in terms of nothing being quite new enough for the energy itself.



      

      In the summer of 2001 I did a great many florals from life, including lots of peonies. These became the foundation for more detailed images, but I'd also always liked the alla prima approach to a flower, getting the most possible in a day or two. Of all the peonies I'd painted, this type was my favorite, so when a few of these came into my life this week it seemed like a good thing to visit again. But it was pouring and really dark, and I decided to at least photograph them while they were fresh. This was interesting, focusing in on a still life set-up and its possibilities, I took over forty photos of it and learned a lot. The next day it was still overcast and the main flower had begun to sag. I decided to just paint one of the photos anyway, the same as though it were from life. Used the handmade paint, just earth colours, and a glue gesso ground on Rives instead of the Arches Huile paper. Got antsy at the end and did not make the white, used Blockx silver white instead, decided I could alter it enough to match. Haha, this was kind of an error, as it was either too mobile or too glutinous, did not have any of the qualities of the handmade lead whites I've been making. This paint is certainly not "bad," except in context it kind of bugged me, this would have been quite different if I'd been a little more patient and done the lead white myself as well. Wet in the photo still, but not a bad photo, used a less saturated paint, have a feeling this will dry up, not down. I have no idea what that goofy greenish line is in the background, it's in the painting too, possibly a fold in the paper that caused the gesso to be more absorbent there. This was a very good learning experience, what I'd call a quality disaster. Between the scale, the density of the paint, and the speed with which this both set and dried, I got into some good new territory but don't feel like it's wholly resolved. As always, I don't want more detail, but more essence. But in dealing with a white flower, a universe in white, there's some stuff that has to happen before the art can. Sop, this is typical of the new moon energy: something happens that is interesting, but still somewhat raw. If I look at this for a while, it may be possible to finish it without sending it through another dozen layers. In the meantime, it might be better just to make a new one based on what I learned from this one, and maybe just a little bigger. About 12x13 inches, oil on gessoed paper.



may 25
      

      Waning moon, new moon this coming Wednesday. Wanted to make some newer work anyway, didn't have that more oomph but was steady, held on. The ideal continues to be an alla prima approach, or at least an alla prima look in several layers, at a somewhat larger scale, using the recent development of handmixed paint made with slightly thicker hand-refined oil. This is more complex to say than to do. In spite of experiencing a lot of the handmade difference over the years, I'm surprised by how different the behavior of this paint is than that of commercial paint.



      

      It looked like this out my window this morning. The parade of flowering shrubs is ending here, the azaleas are waning, the rhododendrons are the last to flower. The houses in the neighborhood often have very small front yards that get turned into informal gardens, some of these are quite energetic and creative. There are several types of azaleas, from the oldest, small flowering ones in magenta and red, to the more modern ones with larger blossoms and more intriguing, if less natural, colours. There's a lot to consider here in terms of documenting a neighborhood, I could have been more proactive this month, just taken lots of pictures, but sometimes it seems better to just experience things, the "taking" seems to get in the way, the pictures get seen and filed away anyway. Still, there's a white peony in the front yard that's almost in bloom, a flower I've painted a lot in life over the years.



      

      Continued with the handmade paint this week, just mixing earth pigments and ultramarine pigment into somewhat thicker oil. This paint puddles but is not as liquid as it looks, makes low impasto and is inherently adhesive, so it layers well. Perhaps this is one of the major "lost secrets" related to handmade paint, that it can easily be grippy, additive, and saturated without any additional medium.



      

      Some interesting oils have come in the mail in the last few weeks. The two jars on the right are hand-pressed linseed oil by Thomas Hirsz, no heat involved, just pressure. The big jar is the oil after it settles, the little jar is what it looks like when it arrives. The other two primitively-pressed oils came in from Christian Hidaka, who has been staying in the Perigord region in France. The first one is unfiltered, the second one looks like it is filtered, but has an amazing smell that is somewhat floral. Anyway, no one in America seems to market an unrefined walnut oil, and I've never encountered walnut oil with this kind of smell, so this has been interesting. I'll refine the unrefined one, to see if, as with linseed oil, it develops more adhesion this way.



      

      Photo of oil being processed sent in by Laura Spector in Texas using the PDF on the site. This sort of thing does my heart good somehow. Some people have written in lately about successful processing using mixing wands or blenders, I may work on this at some point, leaving the sand out, making an emulsion from the salt water and oil, maybe adding the sand and shaking at the end by hand.



      

      An image I've tried a few times without much success that has become kind of a puzzle to solve. A variety of 19th century influences but I'm not thinking in those terms consciously so much as how to turn the feeling of the reference into art. Worked on this with the handmixed paint for three days, looking for a finish line of some kind. Some aspects of this I like in life, the paint certainly cooperated at several viscosities. Not sure if I'd call it done, the sort of painting to let sit for a while, keep going, develop the overall procedure further at this scale before returning to it. About 12x20 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      I'd been looking at Japanese pottery and textiles online and the opening of the next painting happened in indigo and a faded petal colour. I want to work with monochrome again as a way of finding, or at least getting closer to, the inscrutable essence of things. But the search for simplicity turns out to be quite a luxury, and may have to wait until life here settle down more.



      

      Got this far on a second landscape in two days, same technique. A complex composition, did a very small one a while back to puzzle some of it out. Still, worked on this more for the overall feeling than anything too specific. It feels launched, but also like lots of small things need to be altered slightly. And I'm really not sure about the lower right corner, those foreground trees may need to go. The nice thing about this was the sense of release from the more focused approach of the image before. While not as far along, this broader look is more appealing to me, seems to offer more going forward. Italy, the Garfagnana region above Lucca, about 13.5x18.5 inches, oil on Arches Huile.

      Next week is a travel week, and after that I'm going back to Vermont for an extended stay to try to pack everything that remains there. So, the news, like my life, is going to be a little disjointed for a while.



may 18
      

      Full moon early in the week, along with some reasonable heat and humidity. Having had issues with the summer growing up, I truly fear this weather, but am older and cooler now. Have to come to terms with it somehow, there's going to be more. Beautiful here overall, massive flowering plants everywhere. Continued to do layers on older work for most of the week, but then wanted to do something new. I've been avoiding technical experiments in favor of completion, but this one wouldn't go away, and may prove to be reasonably important over time.



      

      When I look at older paintings, I don't often see the look of raw oil, but typically something denser. Thinking about it, it made sense that older oil might end up being thicker, since this is what it does naturally when exposed to air, and older painters weren't generating endless small glass jars in the kitchen. So, for a long time I've been considering making paint again with hand-refined oil. I've been thickening some oil in half full jars, not the SRO oil, this would thicken too quickly, but oil refined with spring water, this goes more slowly. The other thing I wanted to investigate was paint made simply by mixing the pigment and the oil, rather than by mulling, in order to get a paint that was a little rougher looking. Again, this wasn't everybody's paint, but I had a feeling about it, especially in relation to earth colours.



      

      This is the first painting made with handmade paint that was simply mixed. I made six different colours: yellow ochre, a dark raw sienna, a bright but opaque red earth, transparent mars brown, ivory black, and lead white. And a simple putty with chalk. I was happy with how this turned out in terms of the colour choices, the red was a little jumpy but there was no sense of chromatic limitation overall. The grays made with ivory black and white seemed quite blue in contrast to the warm, transparent earth colours. The paint itself was a little startling in that it did exactly what I thought it was going to do. That is, the slightly denser handmade oil provided an element of adhesion or grippiness in what was otherwise technically a very simple situation. The paint could be blended, but was naturally somewhat discrete. The lead white was very adhesive but did interesting things in layers, the drapery is probably the most successful place overall at this point. In trying to complete it in one sitting, I had difficulty with the anatomy of the figure, probably should have started there, and scraped out intermittently instead of just adding more paint. The adjustments I made the second day fixed some things, but introduced others. So, the figure right now is the largest problem. And, overall, this has smoother transitions from dark to light in the foreground and background, the composition makes more sense. But this was fun, and I learned a lot from the behavior of the paint. There have been many unpleasant surprises technically over the years, so it's always nice to guess right. Will probably use what I learned from this to do a second one, then go back and fix this one. I took the picture in 1998, it was of someone I was going out with who lived in Philadelphia. But, we broke up due to the distance issue, and I never painted it. Now we're back together, and doing this seemed like it would be sort of redemptive. She was pretty rough on the anatomy, but overall I think she liked it. About 14x15 inches, oil on prepared paper.



      

      Second painting with the handmixed paint. Felt it would be good to do an image with which I was more familiar. An earlier study of this is one of my technical favorites of the last few years, thought it would be interesting to emulate it at a larger scale. Added ultramarine blue and green earth to the palette. The way the handmixed paint layers is very nice, natural looking, not technically obtrusive or flashy. Worked on this all day, took a few rests when I couldn't see anything else. It might be possible to make a better one, but it probably won't be this one, in life there's more to the sky, overall the painting has a pretty nice balance and sense of incoming morning light. This was a lot of work, had a warning dream last night about overwork, the usual image of a car that is having engine trouble, so I won't push things further, will take a few days off and do other stuff, maybe prep some linen, that would be good to try next instead of paper. After that, I'd like to try one of the more resistant pure landscapes, I think these might respond well to the motion of this particular paint. The behavior of this paint is something I've been looking for a long time. About 12x20 inches, oil on prepared paper.



may 11
      

      Waxing moon, good energy for the work this week in spite of the occasional sense of dislocation. Beautiful weather, the area is full of giant flowering trees still. This week culminated with a train trip to New York yesterday. I'd never been to Kremer Pigments, in spite of having ordered materials from them for decades, so visiting there was fun. While they do a good job of presenting pigments online, the colours just have "more" in the way of identity in life. Had a walk on a summery afternoon on part of the High Line, this is incredibly well done, an elevated mini-park through lower Manhattan, everybody there was pretty happy. Ended up at the Metropolitan for the evening, was a little tired at that point but regenerated for a while anyway; someday I'll get to the Met under leisurely circumstances. Saturday evening there has a nice atmosphere, sort of festive, but there were also a lot of things I wanted to see that were closed. So, no Chardins or Corots, no Constables or Turners. The Vermeers were available, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher has been high on my list to see again and was wonderful. Typically in reproduction the colour gets a little exaggerated, it is on the sparkling side but not unnatural feeling, the handling of the natural ultramarine in the shapes and planes is marvelous. I wonder if it is the first painting to use natural ultramarine everywhere. In the opposite direction, Woman with a Lute was compelling in it's lack of colour, the focus on her lively face emerging from the overall darkness. This one, again, is given more colour and higher values in reproductions. Given the relative obsession with Vermeer these days – howwasitdone, howwasitdone, howwasitdone – I was worried they would be hard to see, but they weren't crowded. The Van Dycks were engaging and well-painted, maybe one had lowered midtones from the aging of thin paint over a dark ground. They looked almost demure compared to the larger and more flamboyant work by Rubens. The famous Lawrence portrait of Elizabeth Farren is a little over the top but she was a comic actress so maybe that was intended. It's hopelessly well painted, he was an amazing technician as well as able to get a wonderful liveliness in the paint itself. This can get mannered in a shining happy way, and there's an English quality that puts some people off, but, especially compared to Reynolds, Lawrence has something unique to offer in the restrained verve of the paint. They have a lot of Degas; it looked at one point like they were positioning Degas to be "the best" Impressionist. The drawings and dimly-lit pastels look better than the oils, which have often darkened a lot. I got a little hung up on the "dottiness" of some of the Monets from the 80s, this resolves itself at distance but I was tired and these looked too speckled to me close up. The moderate Rouen cathedral, this was much more satisfying somehow in terms of integration. There was a lovely small Pisarro still life, early, the handling still influenced by Corot. Again I got a little hung up on a detail, in this case, a knife blade that was simply painted but seemed almost bizarrely perfect for it's role in the painting. A surprise in that area was Bonnard's Garden (1935), which I'd never seen. In life this was both vivid and natural, hot graffiti colours meet Australian aboriginal magical mapping in what looked like one layer of paint. All older paintings in egg tempera looked amazing, simple in some ways, complex in others, but with lovely bright colour often revolving around natural ultramarine and vermilion. Sassetta's Adoration of the Magi is quietly famous, and, like The Persistence of Memory, is small, similarly managing to be both epic and cute. I'm attracted to this quality, the visual haiku, truth doesn't require a circus tent's worth of canvas. A late night, pushing to that extent is sometimes inevitable but may be a double-edged sword in terms of the longer term validity of what I saw. Still, seeing paintings is the most important food group, no matter what I saw or felt, a lot happened. This means a lot to consider or factor in in terms of the next step, the tectonic plates are in motion. Can see something different happening as a response to the early egg tempera work, flat space and large pieces of colour on panels, a return to the colorscape idea but in tempera. The new thing is always fun to envision, play around with technically, but wonder if this kind of departure is wise just now. On the other hand, what's one more massive change at this point? Maybe it's only logical?



      

      The new studio is coming together slowly, I like the room and the light. I'm without most of the work here, as well as most everything in terms of possessions, so there's not too much in it yet, always a plus in terms of helping new things to happen.



      

      In theory the waxing moon is for starting new work, but with everything that's been going on I felt more comfortable doing layers on a set of florals in progress I brought down here in the last trip. This is something older that had gotten pretty gnarly. In some ways this is discouraging, in others it sort of opens the door for a more creative solution. So, I carved some of the larger gobs out of the surface and put a pretty dense layer on it using semi-saturated paint. I knew it would probably dry a little funny, and it did, but the procedure felt strong. Not done, but a moral victory, on its way to greater unity, a more painterly solution. There are two more of these in the birth canal, one in better shape, pretty close to done, then the best composition but in worse shape, both a little bigger. This one is 11x14 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Second version of something from life that worked out years ago. This one is on paper over panel, . Decided to try a saturating layer to begin the finishing process, but got things a little shiny. This is not a technical problem since the surface can be ground back, but on a relatively plane surface, it did mean I didn't get as much paint on as I'd wanted to. Still, it's always fun to see that glowing surface, and it is merciless in terms of exposing small issues. More to go, but moved forward. About 12x14 inches, oil on paper over panel.



      

      Something older that has gone pretty far afield, have to be in a certain mood to throw one of these a lifeline. Or maybe just have to see how to get to the next step. Backed away from saturation in favor of enough paint to alter it reliably. An image I always liked, did an alla prima version years ago from life. This is old enough that it will always be a little technically crude. I don't mind that, there's actually a lot to be said for correcting an initial crudeness step by step until the balance seems right. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Most recent beginning of this series. Began it slowly, it has always had a solid quality that I like. The colour has moved back and forth between natural and lower chroma, I'll keep doing that as it develops. A saturating layer, it will be ground back slightly before the next one using very fine sandpaper. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      There's an extended alla prima version of this on canvas that I really liked from a few years ago, started this one on a gessoed panel with the idea of doing a somewhat different version of it in layers. It's coming together, but not quite in the wonderful place where it just starts completing itself. 12x15 inches, oil on gessoed panel.



      

      Last one this week, had all the technical ducks in a row for this one, a good amount of saturation for this level of completion. One of my favorite images from this series of florals, second version of it, it's always been in a good place but sometimes that can lead to large pauses between layers. Only finer stuff to do, clean-up, a few more layers may complete this one. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



may 4
      


      Drove back from Vermont with another load of stuff on Tuesday. The influx makes it easier to function here, but it is still far from feeling like home. How to define home seems to be kind of an issue right now; more of my painting world would help. It feels like the key is simply to get everything down here as quickly as I can, but it seems equally important to work with what wants to happen here, so I'm not sure how fast this can be. New moon, a demanding one so far in terms of looking for a new way to balance everything, keep all the balls in the air. Began to settle into the work slowly again this week, but am only beginning to feel what wants to happen next.



      


      There's a mixed putty I've been using for a while now off and on to give the paint a quality of density with movement. The first version was a little loose or mobile for me, the second one was a little dense. When I was in Vermont I made a third version of it, trying to find a middle ground. But, as is often the case in these situations, I couldn't resist trying something new. It wasn't much of a change, but because I increased the amount of commercial burnt plate oil, the change has proven pretty significant, even though I tried to compensate by making the medium denser. So, I wanted more saturation, and I got it, but as always when this material is involved -- at least for me -- there's an element of complexity in the execution. The medium appears dense, but, in spite of several types of compensation, contains the secret melting character of BPO. Sometimes evolution can be seamless, at other times it's more quantized, meaning that the first step is a doozey. Even though this is the third version of the formula, there was an interesting learning curve with it this week. I'm not sure this approach is going to work out yet, but it's important not to panic: more time often shows a way to develop a situation that isn't apparent at first.



      


      The houses in the neighborhood are older, with small front yards that tend to become informal gardens. Most of these are restrained or tasteful, but there are a few that pull out all the stops. There are a few images around now that are more certain, but between the composition and the colour scheme, I couldn't resist trying this one. Got one dense layer on and a little correction the next day. As is often the case with a new idea, this felt better after a few days, although it did take an unusually good photograph. I don't want much more from this; one more similarly juicy layer of paint might do it. About 11x15 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      


      Another study testing out the new medium, this one from life. Really wet still, did not take a good photo, I like it better in life but it's not really resolved enough. Haven't done that much of this object work from life recently, so there are some forgotten things to remember. The thing to do in this case is to just make more of these studies from life in this new room, get to know it's personality better, this composition feels inherently flawed. Maybe the object just became too large for the frame, but in larger terms it feels caught between opposites in terms of colour form and space. The trifecta! Still, the room is very nice for this type of work, the object can be in north light, while the easel can be far away in east light. About 11.5x15.5 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



april 28
      

      Drove back to Vermont on Friday, left early and made good time, always fun. My idea was that I'd do this several times over the next few months, but, even though the trip itself isn't that bad, the sense of living between two worlds is pretty disorienting. It was great to see my friends here, but there's not really a studio or a life here anymore. That's in Mt. Airy and I began to miss it very quickly. The fact that Spring in Vermont has been non-existent until this morning might have something to do with it, the house seemed freezing to me even though it was warmer than I'd kept it over the winter. More relativity. I've been packing for the last few days, and it's clear that, as with the last move five years ago, this is going to take a while to do right. So, I'm driving back with the loaded car tomorrow, thinking more carefully about the various things I need, but now the plan is to come back in a few weeks or so and get everything finished, taking as long as necessary. I packed over several months last time but really don't have that option now. The transition itself is complex enough, there's just too much tension involved in trying to straddle two worlds like this. It will take time to pack everything, at least two weeks, maybe three. I'm working to develop a positive attitude towards this: what can I learn, how can I do it better, how can resistance of what seems like endless drudgery be turned into acceptance, smooth and seamless motion from one box to the next?



      

      This house was built in 1790, the front room upstairs was a good room to work in. Still, there's something new happening in the new room, which is a little more civilized. Time to let this one go.



      

      I ended up liking this way of storing the oil, makes it possible to see what's going on with several different processes all at once. One of the many things I'm looking forward to boxing up later in May.




















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