Haunted by Hopper

September 9, 2019

Sometime in 2012, I think, I was struck by the morning light as I crossed the bridge connecting the Langestraat to the Hoogstraat here in Bruges (where I live). So I did a value study of it, imagining that I would soon create a painting of it in the studio. Well, “soon” turns out to have been a bit longer. In the interim we renovated an outbuilding of our house so that I actually had a functional place to paint, but also, I returned to the university in order to attain a Masters degree in Western Philosophy @ KULeuven. That latter project turned out to be a five year hiatus from the studio(!). So now I’m returning now, clearing out old projects and beginning new ones.
Here below is the value study that I had completed before dropping the ball.

Also, I had already transposed the drawing to a gessoed panel and sketched it in using silverpoint touched up with black ink for the deepest shadows. See below.

To restart I mixed up some egg tempera pigment pastes and began blocking in the main areas of color for the underpainting, sticking with light tonalities even of areas that I know will become deeply shadowed. I can always take light away but, using this technique, it’s hard to add it back. See below.

After letting the egg tempera to dry for about a week I applied some retouch varnish (mixed up with a small blob of burnt-umber oil color) in order to unify the imagery but also to minimize the absorbency of oils on traditional chalk gesso. Then I began using oils, tempered with emulsion. My first working session was the sky. See below.

The second was the foreground both right and left. Again, see below.

The third, the middle ground buildings, right. See below.

Then the reflections in the water.

In all cases, I paint some clear glaze medium on the area I plan to paint on that day. Let it dry about 15 minutes and then wipe it off. The surface then is tacky to the touch and receptive to emulsified paint.

At this point, the image is developing nicely; what remains is a question of balance, adjusting the value range, pointing up the highlights and deepening the shadows. Here below is the final result:

A few years ago I located a couple of carpenters who spoke enough English (and were pretty good at sign-language) to readily understand what I wanted them to create. A few weeks later they contacted me, “het is klaar” (it’s ready). My concept: I wanted to create a two sided painting (on a wooden panel) with a rotating inner core. The core needed to be extractable duing my creation process but afterwards could be fixed (permanently) in place.

But why create two paintings on one panel? It’s a ton of work. And what would be the reward? That’s very hard to say, except this: it’s a clear and definite way to demonstrate relation. Relation of what to what? You choose, but of course it offered the fundamental and very pregnant possibility of contrasting realism with abstraction in a direct and visceral way. For one side, I chose a landscape. A realistic, almost academic landscape based upon a value study of one of my favorite views of the Predijkherrenrij here in Bruges, Belgium.

And for the other side? Initially, and for a long time, I planned on an open blue field containing a text from Nisargadatta Maharaj, “I am, I am aware, I like it.” My thinking was simply this: if you have to use words to convery your intent, then these words from Maharaj summarize just about all that you ever really need to know. So, that’s what I created.

The Inside-Out

The Outside-In

When the inner core was rotated, it offered views as seen here left and right:

Thus, so far so good, kinda, but the text really bugged me. It took up way too much mental activity – thus creating a tendency to negate not only the unique mental-activity-bypass possibilities of the visual arts, but also the inner intent of the quotation itself! So last week, I painted over the text, to render a pure open field of blue. Ahhhhhh…

The Inside-Out revised

The Outside-In

When the inner core was rotated into “reality” I got this revised version as seen here left and right. Double ahhhhhhh……. Mucho bueno.