Tad Spurgeon oil paintings


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recent colourscape work

      It's always seemed best to follow a physical energy in painting: paint first, ask questions later. Different kinds of work get generated this way, but over time the differences seem to inform, or cross-fertilize one another. This process has been fascinating: it all comes from me in theory, but I often have no idea what is going on, am often puzzled, trying to catch up with where the process is going. Learning to wait and see has been a big lesson, patience a learned behavior. The process is willing to teach all kinds of things I had no idea even existed, but in discreet increments, not all at once. The key seems to be to let go of what I think, and work with what I feel. And this can be many things as well. But it's led to a process to believe in, a relationship to trust as a guide. And it seems important to be able to trust the guide. These are in chronological order, generally around 11x13 inches, with the image 10x12 inches, some a little smaller. I'm interested in the way they explain something that I probably couldn't put into words, but of course what they explain to me is not what they explain to anyone else.


      August #1: Began to make a new set of the colourscape paintings. Hadn't made these in over a decade, but it suddenly felt like there was a lot to do with it again.


      August #2: These ended up with pastoral references for a while. Having made landscape painting for several decades in Vermont, there were a lot of feeling there, and language to chose from, but I liked them better when they were more goofy than literal.


      September #1: They then began to incorporate elements from toys, the type of colours toys had when I grew up, a kind of construction set that was made of paint.


      September #2: These ideas cross-fertilized one another in interesting ways. This one is not that resolved, but is the first version of a way of developing these -- from big pieces to little pieces, from primaries to secondaries -- that has recurred.


      September #3: Sometimes new things would happen that I didn't know how to develop or complete in the alla prima time frame. It took many months to realize that simplifying an image at this stage was more effective than adding to it.


      September #4: More interaction between land and toys, a little more resolved.


      September #5: Have always been very attracted to the Japanese way of making an image from a collage of different patterns. It was interesting to invent these as the image developed, but eventually in 2021 this led to making separate drawings to expand the language of marks available.


      September #6: Now and then an image would happen that was similar to a previous one, but more resolved. It's always fun when there's a sense of humor in the shapes and colours.


      September #7: This composition intrigued me and I decided to stop here. In some ways it felt done, in some ways I wanted the usual: more paint. Versions of this one recur in May #1 of 2020 and January #1 of 2021 below.


      September #8: Sometimes the system departs from the previous one, in this case it seemed to respond.


      September #9: Another one that somehow has a Japanese influence. This crazy-quilt type of composition is really asking for it, several of these are on the bone pile. One of my favorites, hard to believe I made this.


      September #10: Inverting the concept of a specific foreground and background, I'm very attracted to this but it seldom works.


      October #1: The energy of the year seemed to peak in September. This one returned to the feeling of September #6, less resolved colour but with some new elements. The composition became the basis for a new image in 2021.


      October #2: Shifting the land to the cosmos in slightly looser paint, letting some of the shapes be less defined. An approach I'd like to return to at some point, but have learned the process will tell me when it's time.


      January #1: Continued with somewhat looser paint, and more of it, in wintry colours.


      April #1: First version of this concept. Felt is was a little staid, or predictable.


      April #2: Second version that week. Emptied it, minimized one primary: things that are usually helpful.


      April #3: Third version that week. More painterly midpoint between the first two.


      May #1: Based on the composition of September #7, above. One that didn't quite become resolved, but established some new territory.


      May #2: A different version of the same issue, resolving the composition could take so long that not enough paint ended up on the painting in the alla prima time frame.


      December: Began to work with paint again after a long hiatus. This time off seemed to be about reversing my valuations of being and doing, and taught me about the ways I tended to judge the work that actually impeded its progress. Not a painting, photo of some tempera paint shards from a test study: a new beginning.


      January #1: Began to work with the idea of making these in layers, rather than alla prima. This meant starting in very lean and thin paint. Some of these beginnings worked out better than others; liked the energy of this one, another recasting of the first one from September #7 of 2019 above.


      January #2: Another type of beginning, more calm, a minimum number of shapes and colours.


      February #1: Became somewhat involved with first layers for a while. So it was fun when a second layer happened that I liked. Don't think this is quite done, but it made me feel this approach wasn't a snipe hunt. I mean, it can't be if the energy is there, but it's sometimes hard to be patient.


      February #2: Redo of the composition of October #1 of 2019, inverted it for the third layer here. Like the way this came together in a softer palette without too much in the way of references to anything in particular. Part of me thinks this is done, it is, at least, the most done of this layered series so far.


      February #3: Kind of an oddball, made based on a composition executed in watercolour. This direction could be developed, but moves away from the paint itself, so I'll probably pass.


      February #4: Another third layer, this one on an image from 2019. The paint is ground back each time to consolidate the surface and minimize the thickness of the layers. Not finished but close, I like the details that happen with this method.


      February #5: Another third layer, based on a few prior compositions blended together. Fun in these to search for new colour combinations that are also appropriate to the shapes. Feels pretty close to done!


      March #1: Decided I'd learned enough about the process by making things in layers to do some alla prima work again. A little smaller, the system is leaner overall making the paint less goopy.


      March #2: Similar idea, also a little smaller, somehow more spacious and resolved.


      March #3:How they start. Or one way they can start. Began with lighter colours and more variety to get more layering and make the composition need balance beyond the initial larger shapes.


      March #3: First image of the new solar year, also the first with a new batch of the medium. Just remade both the lean and fat components of the system, so there were some differences in the way it behaved. Will tighten the system a bit for the next image. Would not call this fully resolved, but indicative of the system expanding, on its way somewhere new.


      March #4: Ha-ha, happy Spring, the system is definitely on its way somewhere new. Tightened the medium, and made it a bit more fat. Wanted to try a different type of composition, and also let it the paint be relatively chaotic for as long as possible. Did not feel it was done after the morning, later in the afternoon was able to see some things to change that I couldn't at first, always great fun. More resolved than it was, but still more about the process being in motion. Which is very much how I feel right now, so it seems natural. In early painting, there's a system that has always intrigued me. It begins in fresco, where the lines are incised first, but carries over into oil for a while. What happens is that the lines, which are boundaries, without substance as entities, create a certain composition, but the colours within the lines create a composition of their own. So it's sort of like compositional contraposto.


      March #5: Logical to do something next that was more in control. And although this has some nice spots, it felt too in control.


      April #1: This led to some experiments with a new medium. The first was water-based, the second was tempera, and the third, here, was balanced between tempera and oil. Was able to work more spontaneously with this one, adding and removing paint, which began to address the issue of March #5.


      April #2: But the experiments all dried with a lot of paint film tension, which is fine on panels, but not so fine on paper. Considering this led to trying a new version of the original medium that was leaner and set more strongly. This allowed the more spontaneous application of the experiments, but without the strong film tension. Variation of the composition of September #1, 2019, but less tense, with different colours, a different medium, and a different system of paint application.


      April#3: Week of the new moon, the process wanted to go back to using pigments with tempera, so started there for layer one with this one. This was still equivocal with this style, but the second layer, adding an oil base putty to the tempera medium, and using oil paint, worked out better. This paint was a little stiff, but the overall approach seemed to be on it's way somewhere new.


      April#4: Started this one with the second layer medium of the one above, adjusted to set more and have more saturation. If anything this set too quickly, but this encouraged layering, adding and subtracting. It wasn't all successful, but this got pretty far along for layer one, and begins to resolve the everything is related to everything else direction of March#4 above.


      Comparison of the most recent system with the system I started the year with. The older painting, February#5, has three thin layers put on over a few months. It's one of several like this that are not done, but in the ballpark. February#5 also features the foreground-background way of organizing the shapes in space. It will be interesting to see to what extent I can retrofit aspects of the new system onto the paintings like this. They'll never be as bright as the new way, but they can be brighter. This particular painting would only want to go up be ten or twenty percent, which should be possible. And of course the new way will be less bright when it gets another layer or two to get finished. Colour brightness isn't everything, but it feels important to learn more about it.


      April#5: Another first layer, used the same system as April#4 but with a slightly different tempera formula. This still set very quickly but I like the way it looks. Given that it's the first layer, I'm not sure it's that big a deal. Worked with developing an overall balance, but also an overall unity, rather than a sense of some things being in front, some things being behind. Now the question is, what on earth will happen in layer two?


      Detail from the image above. The first layer paint is thick, but sets quickly and works very finely.


      April#6: For this one, decided to create the unity by variations of a dominant tone, then place the 'different' colour over that. As usual, this became more interesting once I made a 'mistake' that blew up my sense that things were going smoothly. This was the deep teal colour, a colour I've never used in one of these before. All colours are created equal, so it's interesting to explore ones that push a button somehow. In larger terms, the colour harmony situation is a lot like music. With fewer notes, such as a pentatonic scale, the notes emphasize harmony, and the timing or syncopation of the notes is ultimately where the interest lies. With more notes are involved, there's more potential for tension or dissonance, but also for a more evolved definition of harmony or unity. This one isn't exactly dissonant, but it isn't exactly cuddley either. Introducing more chromatic tension at this first stage seems like it might be a good alternative way to begin these.


      April#7: Began this in purple tones, had some issues that required wholesale removal, but got this far. Looking for a next step, asking questions I don't know how to answer yet. Made some fun details, but have to admit this one makes me like the more direct tension of April#6 better. Still, it's logical that a direct or confident approach is followed by a more nuanced or puzzled one. The one above was also made with starch in the tempera medium, which sets less strongly than hide glue; this one returned to hide glue, but a little less to give it more open time. Not sure starch isn't better for this, but we'll see. It's good to have a first layer that obviously needs significant changes: easier to sacrifice, and a fun case to solve. Ha-ha, how do I fix this one? Or does it really need to break out, become something new? It will be interesting to see how much more chromatic latitude the system actually has in layers as a result of a relatively lean beginning. About 10x12 inches, tempera grassa on gessoed paper.


      April#8: Went back to stronger colour and composition for this one. Made the medium with methyl cellulose, it was denser, but didn't set as strongly as the mediums with glue, but that wasn't that big a deal once I realized it. It also made me do it now, instead of after a few more layers of development, putting the painting more in the moment. Photo from the day it was made, the two areas that are overpainted with white will probably dry with a little more influence of what's beneath them, warm yellow on top, dark ultramarine blue on the bottom. About 11x12.5 inches, tempera grassa on gessoed paper.


      April#9: Stuck with the strong colour and slightly larger scale of April#8. Made this one on a day where lots of other happened first, so it ran well into the afternoon, which I could tell was not the best idea. Still, learned some new things, some things about it that will reappear. About 11x12.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      April#10: This one had a smoother development, and also has some fun details, but I still felt a little bit at sixes and sevens about it as a whole. Last week, as the moon headed towards full, there was more blam available for April#8. I may be too interested in blam right now, perhaps because of the Grand Uncertainty if 2021 so far. At the same time, this one is asking the next set of questions. Which the process, at some point, will answer with more blam.


      May#1: Decided not to contest blam any more during a waning moon, and returned to one of the earliest underpaintings, this was a larger version of August#1, 2019. Did this one with a somewhat richer or fatter version of the medium, but still nowhere near what was used in that year. This was different, could be thin or thick, and set relatively fast. This one got to a certain point based on the original, but didn't want to go further. So, ended up making several sets of wholesale changes to this and like where it went. It's quirky, but not sad, a place these often go in layers but with more resolution. Do you know the early Tim Story album, Glass Green? Learned a lot about just letting it go where it wanted to, and this paint was very good at that. Which bodes well for the other starts in this series, since they too just may want to be completely different than their original design. 10.25x12.25 inches, oil over tempera grassa on gessoed paper.


      May#2: First one this week, made this one with whole egg instead of egg yolk in the tempera medium. Was surprised by how tight it still was. Like the colour, but this feels a little blocky to me, or static. Looking for what comes next, but nothing was really new enough. About 10x12 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      May#3: Same palette and medium as the one above, but shifted towards a blue emphasis and some colour harmony from realism. Somewhat smaller scale, did more addition and subtraction, let it be looser, the most fun of them all to make. But, surprise surprise, something newer still wants to happen. Sort of unsettling, but then again, what isn't at this point? Unsettling is my co-pilot. About 9.25x10.25 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      May#4: Used a more limited palette for this one, and it was more fun to make. After the one above, set out to make a calmer one, some passages that I really like, will return to this concept, related to an earlier approach I called Japanese Miniature Golf. But in larger terms -- oh those pesky larger terms, would you like some I seem to have plenty! -- it still kind of feels like the third version of the same issue. About 10x12 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      May#5: This paint layered more cleanly, but could also be carved or removed more cleanly. It was a little surprising that a very small amount of sandarac varnish had such an influence on the way the paint operated. Slightly smaller scale, messier, some elements of colour use from realism. Most resolved image of this week, before things then began to change more. About 9x10 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      May#6: Used the same medium for this one, did more addition of layers, but more removal as well. Ran into basic issues with the composition, and worked with this until I couldn't see it anymore: always an interesting moment, and a logical time to stop. The next morning, ended up changing it by first removing paint wholesale in sections. This process can produce a variety of visual effects both in terms of how the paint is removed, and how paint is applied over this, and the vocabulary of these is expanding. Would still not say this is fully resolved, and I'm not comfortable working with this rectangle, but it is less determinedly bipolar than the previous one. The components of the style are changing, but are being requested to change more. Each of the gestalts or ensembles that lead to a finished image seem to then lead to a battle to the death between the old way holding on, and the new way wanting its opportunity. So, will regroup and see what the next few days leading into the full moon bring. 10x13 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      May#7: Went to a really limited palette for this one, the paint was more thixotropic and layered in a thicker or more rubbery way than last week's paint. Sometimes I know what done is, but sometimes it seems like I've clearly used up my nine lives so it might be a good time to stop. The paint did some interesting things technically but this was more about exploring them than using them. Still, that's what a smaller scale is about, and it's more interesting to learn more than execute a stylistic formula. When things get too perfect, it makes me nervous, even if it just sort of happens. So, when things get a little quirky or warty, that's okay; the pendulum going the other way, the vocabulary of the style growing. 10x12 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      May#8: Began this one as a development of the one above, not quite as limited a palette, and used a more dilute white first. In life I like it better, the colour especially has a nice balance. But, a few days on, can also see more things that might change. This is typical of work done in the waning moon, a sense that the Platonic ideal of the waxing moon is not really available anymore. But it's also typical of a relatively new composition. These are constructed from a 3D matrix of if-then statements: one axis is the colour, another is the shapes, the third is the sgraffito into the colour to reveal what's beneath. Because any change in any axis changes the relationship of everything to everything else, it's fun, and lots of interesting things can happen. But this also means it can be a fine line between creativity and chaos. This one solved something from the last one, but also made me more aware of things the last one solved, and asked its own set of questions. This moon began quietly, but has become pretty type A overall. 10x12 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      June: The work in May began to explore paint that had more saturation. There were things about this that I liked, and things I didn't. Detail here of April#8, a painting made using a medium that dried matte. Decided to see what happened if I saturated it with a thin final coat of a polymerized oil. This is a technique that is actually detailed in the DeMayerne Manuscript, where he writes that Ruben's preferred final varnish is oil thickened on litharge. No litharge here, and a little early to do this, but the paint was pretty lean, and I needed to know! Did this final oil coat with a variety of oils last year, and it worked out better than I thought it would. The key is to keep the layer of oil thin regardless of it's natural thickness. This made the point I felt it would make: that if the colour needs to be really bright, saturating the paint after the fact works better -- for me -- because it feels visually cleaner than saturation in the paint. Well, it only took thirty-six years to figure this out. There are other considerations, such as the increased facility of a richer medium, and the way this type of medium can layer more transparently, and more easily. So, after getting involved with a more saturated medium and even some of the sandarac varnish from 2007 in May, this experiment started the medium back towards being more lean again, in order to dry matte.


      June#1: Tried what seemed to make the most sense for the next lean medium, but it was a little loose, and didn't layer well, and this determined when to stop. It always seems good to come back to one or two that are as simple as possible, though this one seems to show both the strengths and limitations of that approach. 10x12 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      June#2: Went back to a little sandarac in the medium for this, and it layered and carved well, but was still lean enough to dry matte. This had some fun moments in terms of both colour and form, but at first there seemed to be too much above-below separation between stronger and softer colour. Now I'm not sure, this one's growing on me. Still, as is often the case, it feels like the answer is somewhere in the middle: less bright, more detail and layering than the medium above, but more bright, and not as much set or hold, as this medium created. 10x12 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      June#3: Went back to a leaner medium again, it felt nice and tight but was in fact still a little loose. Went back to simpler colour, a little quirky but blue-dominant is always unpredictable. Still, like how these limitations in combination help solve the composition, and it feels honest, exactly how I felt that day. So, the definition of finished is another thing that is changing quickly. I used to struggle with this during the time I sold paintings: the more a painting looked like a new car, the faster it sold, but this was hardly what always what wanted to happen. While this isn't part of the equation any longer, there are still specific expectations left over that are being challenged now. It feels like this process will inevitably end with a larger definition of creativity altogether, the dreaded being, not doing, but I'm being given an opportunity to explore paint more personally for the time being. I'm grateful for this. For finally not having any idea what's going to happen next, for making things that are a surprise again. 10x12 inches, oil on gessoed paper.

older work overview

      The first work was relatively literal, isolating various objects of interest on a numinous stage. These taught me a lot about the basic narrative language of painting. For example, something could be implied -- in this case, the flower -- without being stated. It turned out that, within realism, there were lots of ways that less could be turned into more. Alla prima painting of an amaryllis bulb from 1993, 20x28 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


       Morandi's work became a lifeline for me, solving the issue of a meaningful path within realism. I worked with many permutations of a similar -- at times very similar -- style for over as decade beginning in 1988. Often this work seemed to also be somewhat Japanese, aided in this case by an antique raku tea bowl that came my way. It soon became apparent that the search for simplicity was complex. More importantly, I realized that exploring this paradox was immensely fulfilling. Alla prima, from 1997, 10x12 inches, oil on gessoed canvas over panel.


      It was also possible to find this Japanese quality in work done outside. Alla prima study from 1997, 10.5x12 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Still life work continued, and it sometimes seemed that even less was more. Alla prima study from 1999, 10.5x12 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      By 2003 I'd found a way of working with the Morandi model that I liked, but also realized that it was time to go my own way. The evanescence might have to be sacrificed, but this would lead somewhere new. Alla prima still life, 2003, 12x16, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      The paint then slowly began to get more solid. I worked more from life, with more paint, and slowly began to see things more my own way. This was, in its own way, very traditional: learn the teacher's way first, becomes yourself second. Another alla prima still life from 2004, 12x16, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      The cans eventually became a series of their own, with many variations on the theme. The tension between their mechanical and human nature was really interesting: how to animate objects whose geometry was so formal? Alla prima still life from 2005, 12x16, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


       I also made work which was more closely observed, more about color, paint, and the mystery of the object on stage. From 2003, 12x14 inches, oil on gessoed panel.


      It's also interesting to revisit images sometimes and see how their execution changes. From 2016, still in progress, 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Corot is another painter I was really interested in. Small copy of his Crecy-en-Brie Road10.5x14 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Constable's outdoor work has also been important. One of several copies made after his first small study for The Hay Wain, an extraordinary painting. 9x12 inches, oil on gessoed canvas over panel.


      Living in Vermont, working outside was important, most often I make small studies on gessoed paper simply working with what is there. The outdoor work involves a lot of heat of the moment, and seems to anticipate elements that will be coming into the studio work. The intensity of the blue and green element in summer has proved to be a perennial challenge.


      Study from summer, 2008, a front moving into Farr Cross Road early on a summer morning, I was almost blown off the road. This is a place I've painted for a decade, always interesting to see what has changed there.


      Sometimes a certain location proves to have many possibilities over time, such as this overlook of Lake Champlain at Button Bay.


      The medium and palette are set up to respond to the time of year. Button Bay, 2008.


      Sometimes the focus is more on observation. Button Bay, 2008.


      While a second study on the same day usually produces something more essential or abstract. Button Bay, 2008.


      Quick studies from life are also more abstract, as in this early morning storm clearing over Button Bay in 2008.


      Studies from life can also generate studio work.


      Usually I work small, but sometimes I work bigger, detail below.


      Some of the work has it's origin in two trips to Tuscany, a place that felt oddly like coming home. From the first trip, a villa in Pieve di Brancoli outside Lucca.


      A more recent alla prima version of the same image.


      From the second trip, a farm in the Mugello region above Florence at the beginning of a thunderstorm. Painters from other countries began arriving in Italy in the late 17th Century, there is a sense of something nurturing in the land that has been understood and interpreted in many different ways.


      I still return to these images as a portal into a calmer world. Study of the same farm, 8x13 inches inches, oil on paper over panel, 2016.


      I usually paint realistically, but ever since the 80's I've worked off and on on color-oriented work. This took over full time for a while in 2006. Image here from June, 13.5x15 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Close-up showing the additive-subtractive puns that go on in these. Very fun when the style arrives, but impossible to manufacture otherwise.


      A favorite from the interlude of these in 2007. I think a lot about the early use of color in Italy, these paintings often seem to be a way to use that interest.


      The more closely observed work continues, these can take a long time to complete but the closer it is, the more fun it gets. However, these do become difficult to photograph accurately. I still think there's something basically comical about painting cheese.


      Working quickly alla prima is a good balance to many layers over time. These images are also good ways to try out more visceral or rococo mediums.


      For many years I drew everything in red chalk first.


      But I've always liked the focus of fine line drawing too.


      The chalk style can be expanded to include pastel.


      But careful drawing is more reliable in determining whether composition is correct.


      At one point I made lots of small monoprints. The interplay of realism and abstraction in these was very fun.


      And sometimes drawings happen in reed pen. These are more like paintings.


      Sometimes I'll make small watercolors to explore an idea. A step closer to oil painting, but simpler to explore.


      This process in turn helps paintings to begin in a more essential way.


      Hopefully this quality makes it all the way through the process.


      I make a lot of the materials I use. For a while it was a fine line between inspiration and chaos.


      But it led to greater understanding of how to refine the oil.


      The oil I refine makes somewhat different paint. It has more boing, contains only pigment and oil. This makes it more thixotropically reactive to other traditional medium ingredients than commercial paint.


      It mostly happens at the easel.


      But no horizontal surface is really safe.


      When I lived in Vermont there was a show every few years, both harrowing and fun.


      But the most important thing is what happens next. So it all leads back to making things.


      Fixing what went wrong.


      Trying the next new thing.


      And starting over with a slightly better plan.


      Even starting over again with a slightly better plan.

      This is painting.


      An introduction to the chalk putty medium is here.

       More detail, history, and formulas can be found here.


      And starting over with a slightly better plan.


      You can also use what I learned over the last 15 years to start a plan of your own.

For further information on technique or a specific painting please contact tadspurgeon@gmail.com
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