Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Most Maddening Painting

It started before Halloween. I was going to make a painting recycling the bottom of a cupboard drawer for the support. The painting would be a celebratory remembrance of a wonderful French dinner under my favorite tree in Strasbourg, France; a massive and ancient plane tree, full of knobs from decades (centuries?) of pollarding. The first layer was a sort of "staining" layer in acrylic. I wanted the grain of the wood to show through. I chalked in drawings of David and Mary.  So far, so good...

 Then, I began working on the visages of Mary and David.  Mary's eyes came out fairly convincingly. The goal was to have a cursory go over with acrylic and then add oil (from oilsticks) for detail and richness. I was very happy with the shorthand description of the tree.

Working along, Mary and David both off to a good start, or so I thought. David was not happy with his open mouth. To me, it looked like he was in the middle of a Francophile rhapsody, but the customer is always right (even though he is not a customer!)  I should have stuck with Mary as she is right now!

I took a photo of David with his mouth shut and used it to adjust his image. David was happy with the results and proclaimed the representation obituary worthy (!) I guess he can die happy... I thought Mary was reasonable, too. But, David felt her representation to be off. And so started an intense period of revisionism.

This was an interesting exercise, because, although I was quite frustrated in not being able to get it right, the work was exhilarating. I had endless energy to work and scrape, work and scrape. Still, it was not coming together.

One has to be able to both see the image accurately, and yet translate the visual information into abbreviations that read well from a distance. Too much information looks cartoonish and off from a distance.

I remember what I have told students, to always return to looking. Get your first hand knowledge and use it. Don't make assumptions, don't figure you know something before you know it! I made a drawing of Mary to see what I've been overlooking and/or over-emphasizing. I like the drawing, but it didn't help. I stayed up until 3:30 am working on Mary, but she was playing hard to get! So, I gave up and figured what I learned from this exercise was worth enough. I did not have to have it end exactly like I had planned.

So, I put myself in the painting. It was an evening I wanted to remember: sitting under this beautiful tree, having my third goat cheese salad of the trip (this one made with phyllo dough) drinking a red Alsacian wine in my favorite little Alsacian glasses. This is the first time I've included myself in a painting. Painting myself was fairly easy. We know we have preconceived ideas about our own likeness, so we have to be particularly careful and objective; really focusing on abstracting out the image. I was in the picture in no time at all! Or maybe, David just figured he shouldn't say anything about it...!

David even made the frame for the painting. I'm going to hang it where the old cupboard used to be. We can remember a fine trip to France and a wonderful evening. Though this was a maddening exercise, it also reminded me that I love the challenge of looking and thinking; translating what I see to the surface of a painting, being objective and subjective to make a convincing representation. I think I'll keep painting.
Happy New Year!