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. 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:This is 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.

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 in the last 15 years to 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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