A question of balance…

August 22, 2012

Langs de Vaartdijk


Today I created the final glaze on one of my favorite views along the Vaartdijk, a canal on the outskirts of Bruges, Belgium. On a clear day by about 11:00 a.m. the light makes a nice silhouette of a distant church tower with great rooftop variations inbetween: an interesting study of light. Additionally (at least in summer), the green vegetation and red roofs create a wonderful complimentary color juxtaposition, too. I wanted to try to maximize both in a painting.

I began last year with a watercolor study. This was helpful for setting out the general composition but didn’t come close to conveying what I saw (or felt about what I saw). I knew oil was needed to set it right. After working up an underdrawing in india ink followed by an underpainting in egg tempera, I set out attempting to maximize the reds and greens as I felt them through layers of pigment – in the studio. Working en plein air is great for quick studies but it’s almost a contradiction in terms for manipulating layers of oil here in rainy and unpredictable Belgium. Additionally, I knew I needed to concentrate on my own vision and not become distracted by the changeful atmospheric conditions attendant to working in situ. Describing distance with oil paint is a huge challenge, as any hue or value too weak (or too strong) belies the intended effect: it’s a question of balance.

I ended up dancing between cadmium yellow light and cadmium yellow medium for my yellow pigments and ultramarine or thalo for my blues. So my greens would vary from an almost neon green (cadmium YL and thalo) in the foreground, to just slightly dirty in the middle (cadmium YM and ultramarine), to a warmish gray at the back (cadmium Y M and thalo plus burnt sienna). And my reds alternated between two wonderful earth pigments: an opaque mars red and a more translucent burnt sienna.

But these developing color thrusts demanded a regular rebalancing of the whole through reasserting the original statement of light. I often had to reintroduce opaque white pigment in order to reclaim a highlighted area that had become obscured. Of course, it’s always best not to lose light in the first place, but perhaps it’s just a necessary evil of the glazing process? In any case, in addition to the vibration of color, the circulation of light was an equally important factor to integrate in this piece. The image above is the final result. I quite like it.

Notes on figure drawing

June 28, 2012

Figure drawing, March 2012

I’ve been attending a weekly figure drawing session for over a year now.  A local artist loves to draw from the live model so he throws open his studio on Monday nights and invites any and all like-minded others to join in. There’s usually jazz blowing through his sound system and a small fire in the wood burning stove. We chip in for the model’s fee and that’s that, no teacher, no guru: one naked body in motion and rest.

When I began coming to these sessions I hadn’t drawn from the figure in almost 25 years so I felt pretty rusty. For these last decades I’ve been concentrating on rendering landscape, which doesn’t move even though the light and atmospheric effects on it certainly do. So from my terrestrial work I knew about my penchant for motion, for tracing the land’s skeleton, for shapes and the contrasts of light and dark, but how to get the essence of model’s pose down quickly and with some sense of accuracy?

I began with medium toned gray paper, slashing out indistinct highlights and blocking in coarse shadows. Most days the figure floated somewhere in space, sometimes a bit amputated, or just distorted from forcing a three dimensional entity onto a two dimensional space. I experimented with different grades of pencil, conté crayon, oil pastels and sticks of black carbon. I tried white sketching paper, cheap recycled toned drawing paper, charcoal paper and Canson Mi-Tientes, each medium possessing a different tactile quality for recording sensation. I felt myself like a caterpillar with legs and antennae outstretched, sensing these forward vibrations with my own febrile tentacles.

Figure drawing, May 2012

Ingrained in my little head are the words of a friend’s former teacher, Nicholas Wacker, of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

  • Mise en page (placement on the page)
  • Circulation de la lumière (circulation of light)
  • Grisaille (gray/shading)

Thankfully, these principles guide me like a mantra in each sucessive attempt. Over time I developed an approach. For longer poses I sketch in the outline of the figure using a 6B or 8B lead pencil on a heavy weight Canson pastel paper. When I am satisfied, I block in the essential highlights with white chalk or pastel. If I have time, I return for the shadow accents.

Figure drawing, June 2012

For the shorter poses, 8B pencil, red conté crayon or black chalk on toned paper suffices. I remember that no line is superfluous so I try to erase as little as possible. John Ruskin in The Elements of Drawing advises, if you begin gently enough, any inaccuracies can be corrected with a new and heavier line. All lines are forays into the unknown, honor them as such. But if it at some point it all turns into an illegible chaos then it’s simply time to start over. And no harm done.

Well…

April 27, 2012

Non-Duality the groundless openness Douwe TiemersmaIt took us two years – and steady collaboration with the author – to translate the nuts and bolts of Douwe Tiemersma’s book Non-Dualiteit, de grondeloze openheid into English. You know, we just wanted to understand what he was actually saying(!). It took another year of judicious editing to arrive at a manuscript that was attractive to a publisher.  Last November we were lucky enough to sign a contract with John Hunt Publishing. They plan to publish it soon under their Mantra imprint.

In these intervening months I have done another round or two of author editing after also reviewing the publisher’s copy editing. Now the manuscript has been finalized and real production begins. Though it is hard to predict when it might actually hit the streets, six months from now is a reasonable guess. Luckily the publisher will handle all the marketing and distribution (efforts and costs) – and yes, when the time comes for it, the book should be available on Amazon. Look for it, read it and write a review if you find yourself inspired to do so.

For more information about Douwe and groundless openness you can check out his English language blogsite: http://thegroundlessopenness.wordpress.com/

More Painting Backwards

October 20, 2011

In early July this year I created a watercolor of a view along the Damse Vaart nearby Bruges, just in front of where the steamboat, the Lamme Goedzak, docks.  I really liked the composition created by the canal stretching out into the distance, as well as the light of the evening as it progressed.

Damse Vaart watercolor

By remaining in one location for a few hours, just painting, just watching, I could let the scene tell me precisely which light to try and capture.  The sun was slowly setting in the west (here in midsummer, it doesn’t completely descend until almost 11:00 p.m.), so although the composition in terms of land, trees and water did not change, the light on them certainly did.  I snapped a few photographs of the different transitions as I made my choice.

Back in the studio I transposed the composition to a panel and quickly sketched in the main elements, suggesting the central movements and thrusts as I felt them, the textures and the chiaroscuro.  I used india ink for the stronger value details and silver point for the lighter, softer ones. (sorry, no photo of this stage available) The next time the weather was good, I went back out to do an underpainting using egg tempera (in the field).  Egg tempera is not a technique that easily lends itself to field work but I wanted to experiment.  I worked with a limited palette and preground my colors into a paste using distilled water.  Since I knew the last levels of painting would probably be in the studio, I wanted as much authenticity-of-place as possible.  I decided to use the landscape color convention of stong yellows in the foreground, greens in the middle and blues for the background.  Values were kept fairly light, with everything suggested yet still fairly coarse. (no photo available)

Damse Vaart Oil

Two months later, after a rainy August, one month’s holiday and tons of other stuff inbetween, I had the chance to do the imprimatura. I mixed up a blob of burnt umber tube oil-color with retouch varnish (1 damar to 2 turps).  I painted it on, letting it absorb into the panel for about a minute and then wiped it back off.  It left a thin veil of warm brown over the whole image.  With another small brush dipped in turpentine, I began wiping the brown tint back off from the pre-painted highlighted areas.  Within fifteen minutes the process was complete, the highlights jumped out and the shadows pushed back, both filled with descriptive details and vibrating with life. I was tempted to call it done.

Damse Vaart Oil on panel

Damse Vaart Oil on panel

Nevertheless, the following year I decided to finish the piece – in the studio. I covered it with a tinted glaze of bunrt sienna and painted directly into that, wet-on-wet. This kept the wood areas vibrating with additional warmth and the greens and the blues well grounded. The challenge as always was to mix an array of receding greens to describe the distance. When it was dry I brought some highlights back in using tempera white (zinc white mixed with emulsion). Some of those final highlights required a little glazing just to bring it all back in balance. The resulting painting had a lovely color vibe, the  red warmth of the wood contrasted to the greens (and yellows) of the vegetation.

Kunstroute Press Release

July 16, 2011

Kunstroute Zuienkerke

artists of the artroute

Picture yourself biking through the beautiful coastal countryside of West Vlaanderen this summer, visiting the picturesque villages of Zuinenkerke, Meetkerke, Houthave and Nieumunster.  Sounds nice, yes?  But then picture yourself enjoying not only the rural scenery, but also discovering the work of 25 contemporary artists whose work will be displayed en route.  Sounds even better, right?

It’s the 14th edition of the Kunstroute Zuienkerke.  Grab your bike and on August 13, 14, 15 and/or 20, 21 between 11:00 and 19:00 plan on traversing the 25 km route in style. Download the folder front and back to view the complete list of participating artists and venues.  Entrance is free.

In conjunction with the Kunstroute I’ll be exhibiting a number of drawings and watercolors in the Herberg Drie Koningen for the whole month of August.  The Herberg is open from 11:30 Thursdays – Sundays.  Please consider yourself welcome!

Encaustic revisited

May 10, 2011

Nils-26 encaustic
Nils #26, encaustic on collage, summer 1978

About 30 years ago I did some mixed media “puzzle” paintings using, among others, a melted wax technique called encaustic.  Although I liked the final result, the cumbersome nature of the materials that the technique required has just not suited my somewhat nomadic lifestyle since that earlier time.  It’s only recently that I decided to give it a re-try.  In the intervening years, encaustic has become quite a hobby craft, so there is a lot of information and materials available for it on the internet.

One main element needed for encaustic painting is a metal pallette whose heating temperature can be adjusted.  30 years ago, for 5$, I had a welder create a pallette for me from scrap metal, found a few hotplates to insert under it and voila, I could mix my pigments, varnish and melted beeswax, no problem.  However, one piece of equipment I never did get was a hot lamp to “fuse” the final painting. Back then, I just left some of the finished paintings out in the sun (it was summertime) to heat up and “fuse”. It seemed to work just fine, and the paintings I created at that time are still alive and well. The memory I retained from this experiment was that this was a coarse technique full of wonderful textural surprises but hard to control for realistic detail.

Anna #18

Anna, #18, encaustic with collage, April 2011

This time around, I found a raclette warming tray at my local thrift store.  For about 10$ I got my pallette, adjustable hot plate and fusing element all in one.  Nice coup!  Main equipment hurdle, check: done.

Next step: making the medium.   I ordered some bleached beeswax and pulled out my pulverized damar varnish crystals.  I melted the beeswax and then added the damar crystals to it at a portion of 4 to 1 (wax to varnish) by weight.  The varnish requires a higher temperature than the wax to melt, so I had to adjust and stir constantly.  When the liquid was clear I poured it into small molds. Both toxicity and flammability are factors in this process, so if you do it yourself, be sure to research it well first and be attentive all the way through.  Don’t use your favorite souffle pan; any pan or wooden spoon called to arms will be ruined (at least for cooking).

Once the medium is created you can go two different ways: one way is to remelt the medium and add dry pigment directly to it or add oil colors from the tube. Having now experimented with both, I would heartily recommend adding dry pigments directly. Although it’s more effort up front, there is no question of shelf life due to the oxidation of the oil. Thus now I have a few cakes of different colors ready to go. Hurdle #2, paint: done.

Anna #09

Anna, #09, encaustic on panel over egg tempera, April 2011

I began slowy, carefully, selecting the first squares of open abstract patterns, knowing that I had already determined to do half of the face in this technique, so I needed to get up to speed. If the Fayum mummy portrait painters could paint such beautiful portraits, there must be a way. Due to the quick hardening time of the wax, my first strokes reaffirmed the clumsiness I had expected. How to render facial detail?  After more research and surfing, I located a hobby source for an electric hot-pen or brush. Yes! This tool made all the difference. I could load up my hot-brush and render a long gentle stroke without the wax hardening in transit. Fine lines became possible, softer transitions, too. Hooray for hobby-craft!

Even though it is still a work in progress (because the backside of each panel will also be painted) you can view the front side of this mixed media collage here.

Egg tempera revisited

May 10, 2011

Anna, #17, egg tempera, silverpoint and india ink

Anna, #17, egg tempera, silverpoint and india ink

Although I’m a huge fan of egg tempera, as a medium I generally use it for underpainting.  It’s quick drying and relatively easy to manipulate, establishing firm graphical forms, through firm graphical brushstrokes that tend to be light in tonality. But for creating soft, smooth, subtle gradations that’s not its forte unless you have boatloads of patience.  So in my book, that makes it great for underpainting, but as a stand alone medium, I’m not a purist, at least, not yet.

However, in my most recent “puzzle” painting project I planned to do just that.  Each of the 25 squares involved were developed in silverpoint, india ink and egg tempera – as underpainting or underdrawing, respectively.  Then, many of those panels received a further development in oil or wax or a combination thereof.  But, I planned to leave 8 of thsoe panels alone remaining as a  treatment in pure egg tempera, so for those 8, my skills in manipulating the medium had to suffice.  Would they?

Anna_08

Anna, #8, egg tempera

The trickiest section by far was the face (which I left for the last).  Early on I had decided to underpaint all the flesh tones with green earth, or terra verte pigment, similar to the Siennese painters of the Renaissance. (At that stage the figure looked rather ghoulish and I had to console myself that it would change.)  Darker facial details were also painted with the same green earth.  As I began to overlay with my warmer colors, the face came to life.  Great!  That particular facial square had also received some pre texturing with sculpting putty so the sculpting contributed in its own way, for example, the hair on the left only required of a few layers of burnt umber as a wash.

The final mixed media collage can be seen here.

I’m in!

March 20, 2011

Yes, it’s true, it’s official.  I am now a published author!  Sure, writing to your own blog can be a form of self-mandated soap boxing, but now two different and independent online publications have each published one of my essays.

The first (chronologically) is PSYART, on online journal dedicated to a psychological study of the arts.  You can find the journal here.  I’m currently listed in the top left place on the home page, next to a short abstract on the right describing the contents of the essay.  You can click on the title, “The non-duality of self-expression” to read the full article.

The second publication is Non Duality Magazine, a non-profit online journal dedicated to an ongoing investigation into self-realization, awakening and consciousness itself.  My article has been included in the Art section of volume 4.  I find Non-Duality Magazine to be a very clean and clear representative of the the depth and breadth possibilities available within the realm of self-investigation.  I highly recommend surfing through the current issue as well as all three previous volumes.

My essay occurred in its original form as a blog post about a year ago, arising from a combination of at least two elements that I’m aware of: my translation activities on a  book about Non-Duality (we’re currently looking for a publisher for the completed manuscript so – hopefully – more to come on that soon) and a painting I was working on at that time.  That original post has now been updated to reflect the most recently revised version so that those who wish to comment on the article can easily do so.  All comments are welcome!

The Big Ooops

February 10, 2011

original photo of Nils Johan Miena

I’m taking a course right now in “Business Issues for Artists”. All the stuff they never teach you in Art School, but things you definitely stumble upon as you make your way in the world. We are just finishing the “Legal” module. Last night for the final exam we had to describe an artistic-legal situation (problem and solution) of our choosing. My choice was easy enough to select from my own experience. Here’s the recap:

In 1978, fresh from university and ready to become a famous artist, I fell in love with a photograph from National Geographic. It was an image of a beautiful young Lapp boy leaning against a shed, wearing the traditional costume of the Saami people: pictured here top, right. Very colorful image. Lovely portrait. Nice light.

Nils, #21, egg tempera

I decided to paint the photograph by breaking up the image into 64 equally sized squares. My idea was to treat each square differently, with a different ground, texture and painting technique. It was a fantastic way to become acquainted with many different techniques simultaneously; to discover how each one reflects light and renders color – differently. This early experiment showed me very clearly which surfaces I liked and which I didn’t (acrylic gesso got a big “ugh”) in a purely tactile way, introducing me to my own temperament. I highly recommend the experiment. However, you do need to choose your image carefully as I was totally oblivious to copyright laws!

Nils, #15, Oil

Anyway, soon after creating this project I experienced an abrupt personal and stylistic change. “Nils” went into storage and I moved out to California. 25 years later, I pulled “Nils” out of storage to see if I could finally sell this little experiment of mine. He had weathered the storage time beautifully so I set him up on my website and in an exhibition space with the intention to sell. However, still, I was totally oblivious to copyright laws, until one day it dawned upon me……ooooops! Big oops. Copyright.

Nils, #53, encaustic

The long and short of it is that I contacted National Geographic who gave me the information I needed to contact the original photographer of the image, Eric Borg. Which I did. I explained the situation and we agreed upon a shared percentage of the sales price and that was that. I did finally sell the piece, so now the laws have been honored, my closet got cleaned and an old friend of mine is the happy owner of this early experiment of mine. The moral of the story is don’t assume printed material belongs to you, just because you buy the magazine or book. If you use a “found” image, either research its copyright, change it so that it is thoroughly (and I mean thoroughly) unrecognizable, or be ready to pay the piper.

Nils, final full-sized assembled result.

Troubleshooting Chalk Gesso

December 14, 2010

The first time I began creating paintings on panels using chalk gesso I had no problems. I read the manuals, ordered the materials from a good supplier in NYC and proceeded to create my panels.  No problem. It was summer in Connecticut.  30 years on, the paintings I created from those panels are still alive and well.

Over the years, with other batches both in sunny, dry, warm California and later in Germany (also in the summertime), I had no problem. My batches were done using rabbitskin glue sourced from my American art suppliers (Utrecht in NYC or Bay City in SF) or later Kremer pigmente in Munich. Now, after moving to Bruges, I’m back to creating new batches of gessoed panels.  But why am I experiencing such difficulty with my gesso? How strange to find myself returning to square one with what should be a relatively simple process. So, I’ve decided to document my trials and errors – for myself and internet posterity.  There may be others out there who have experienced similar problems?

The problem:

My assembly process would begin normally, but as I proceeded to build up layers, the gesso would no longer flow but rather glom onto the panel. The brush would stick, the gesso would glob.  When dry, a little sandpaper would remove far too much pigment. So it was clear: there was a problem with my glue.

Troubleshooting:

I generally create my panels in the wintertime.  Nothing to be done about that.  The house is radiator heated, that’s got to be better than whatever (winter) conditions Cennini ever experienced. We live next to a canal in an older house that does not contain double glazed windows, so it might be more drafty and moist than many modern environments, still, creating good gesso panels should be possible.

Double boiler?  Yes, of course. Did the glue boil?  No.  Never.  But after the gelatine melts, what is the threshhold temperature which spoils the glue?  I researched temps on the internet and found 52° Centigrade to be the most generally noted gauge.  But is that true?  From my experience, it depends on the source, as RS can vary a great deal.  At this point, I would not go by numbers but rather my own eyesight.

For example, a few years ago I bought a new batch of glue from my local art dealer, a man who specialized in esoteric artists materials.  It seemed OK at the time but then the problem began to recur.  Does RS have a shelf life?  Or did I let the glue “cook” too long?  I had purchased a meat thermometer and kept my temp well below 52°.  Still, invasion of the glom. 

For my most recent batch I used the last of my old RS from the esoteric art supply store.  When I added the pigment, the paint became very granular and unattractive.  I guess it does have a shelf life (even though it did not smell)…  So I threw it out.

Then used the RS that I had purchased recently from Kraemer Pigmente.  Little crystalline pebbles, very nice.  When I ran out of the Kraemer RS (silly, I had only purchased a 100 G test amount), I bought a new batch of glue from my local art supply store (brand, Senellier). This stuff comes in pellets similar to the scat of small animals that you might find in a forest. (I prefer the Kraemer)  But for both glues, I soaked them overnight (80 G RS to 1 liter of water), melted, cooled and did the finger-pressure-crevice test. So far, so good. (Though the Kraemer RS seemed firmer, clearer, less cloudy, more uniform and refined.)

I bought an electric warming plate at the local Kringwinkel (Salvation Army).  It holds food warm but doesn’t  cook it.  40° Centigrade or so but not higher.  Great, I thought.  But still, when I kept the glue-pigment in that double boiler pot for a few hours, the glue lost its strength.  Oooops.

Bottom line: 

  • Buy the best grade of RS that you can find from an archival artist’s materials supplier (like Kraemer). 
  • Do the crevice test, if you want, but be sure to take it off the heat as soon as it fully melts.  
  • Add your pigment in the center in a stream, allowing it to gently absorb the glue and sink via gravity.  
  • Stir thoroughly but not vigorously.  
  • For uniformity, do your gessoing in one session (one day). 
  • Rabbitskin glue is an organic substance, containing all the resilience and receptivity of living matter, as well as it’s limitations.