Sunday, December 11, 2011

Reworking a failed passage

Sisyphus, by Titian

As those of you who read my blog already know, I fight like hell to get my paintings to work. The more you learn about painting, the harder it gets. Eventually it will become too hard for me to do at all.


Sometimes a passage (or area) of a painting just doesn't work. Here is one of those. Its time to give this One a second chance! This is a group of rocks in the middle of a seascape. After struggling for days with it, finally I decided to rip the whole thing out and have another go at it. It was time for a fresh start. Because I worked a long time trying to get these rocks right, I built up a lot more paint than I wanted. Above is the failed passage, that has been sand papered down. I wanted to get the surface back to flat and level so I could start over and not have pentimenti (ridges from the previous brushstrokes) visible under my newly applied paint.

First I scraped the surface with the side of my offset, leaf shaped palette knife to get as much of the paint off as I could. Then I sanded it until it was flat with 80 grit sandpaper. I wet sanded it by dipping my sandpaper in mineral spirits. Then I finished it off with the 150 (sand paper with a higher number is finer). I think I get better results wet sanding, but also I don't want all the dust from my pigments flying up into the air for me to breathe, if I wet sand the painting that doesn't happen. I wear nitrile gloves when I paint so I didn't get the resultant toxic slurry all over my hands and abdomen.

I had been trying to just " invent" the rocks, something I am sometimes able to do. It wasn't working for me this time so I needed to hire a model. Above is my "model". Those are two pieces of anthracite coal picked up from an old railroad bed in Vermont. I have a box of about twenty of these and I use them for just this purpose. I have sprayed them with krylon to give them a little more reflective surface. Anthracite coal looks a lot like ocean rocks, it has facets and unusual shapes. I can look at it and use those shapes to create rocks in a seascape that don't look too "man made". It is necessary to simplify them or only use some parts of them, but it really helps to imagine the forms and the different planes turning against the light.

I have a clamp light with a 40 watt "daylight colored" bulb in it at the same angle I want my light to be hitting the rocks that I intend to paint. This little tableau is on a wooden shelf cantilevered out from the wall right next to my easel at just below my eye level ( I am 32 feet tall, and weigh over 1600 pounds).

Below are the rocks, redux. I have elongated the rock on the left, I needed it to fit into a particular area of the painting. I have also thrown some color in there, sometimes the coal looks great painted it's actual color, but in this case I wanted a red-orange Cape Ann granite.

Perhaps if I ever get this painting finished I will post it so you can see how it comes out. I still have a fair amount of refinement to do on this area, but you can see what I am up to.


There is still room in Snowcamp. The first session is filled but the second still has a few spaces. If you would like to come you can sign up here. Snowcamp happens at a big old wooden inn high on a ridge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The inn overlooks the Cannon Mountain and the Presidential range. We paint outside just out the back door of the inn so if you get cold you can run inside and warm up by the fire. The Sunset Hill Inn takes good care of us and everything we need is right there. I park my car and forget it while I am there. Snowcamp is a three day total immersion experience that runs from breakfast until well after dinner. It is a great way to meet other painters and learn how to work outside in the winter. Snow painting is my favorite thing, and I will show you some of the tricks I have picked up in my about 30 years of painting it.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The surface of an Edward Seago, examined

© The Estate of Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery

Above is a painting by Edward Seago that is full of bold impasto. What a fine One it is! As you probably know Seago is one of my heroes ( the others are Aldro Hibbard, Willard Metcalf, and Jeff Beck) If you click on it you will be able to see some of the different textures and thicknesses of paint he used. I will unpack what, in my opinion, he did in various parts of this picture.

Seago texture his canvasses before he painted on them. Here is a link to a post about that. In the passage above, Seago has dragged the branches across his sky, already textured by his ground. It looks to me like he did this with a knife. The rough ground grabbed the paint unevenly from his knife. This had to be done ONCE! This method doesn't admit for much correcting or alteration.
He added the larger branches with a brush, a sable rigger ( sometimes called a scriptliner) would do that nicely. Notice how he allows interuptions in those lines of the branches made with a brush. That makes them look of a piece with the rest of the dragged looking passage. Had he drawn those too carefully and consistently they would have looked too different from the knife work around them and pointed out the paucity of the means used to produce the spotted foliage and twigs against the sky.

Above is a passage from the middle of the painting. I wish I could get better details to show you but this is what I have to work with. The house there is heavily loaded paint, mostly white with a little ocher added to it. Notice how loose and barely suggested everything in this passage is. Seago has made a point of putting a dark contrasting value in the line of trees behind the buildings. the contrast makes the passage pop and draws our eye there. Seago wanted to be sure we didn't miss the buildings down at the bottom of the field. He also dragged his brush strokes across the rough ground in the warm red tree that is just above the white gable of the house. This softens his edges in a different way than a painter would do on a smooth surface by pulling colliding edges together with a soft touch of the brush. Although the mechanics of arriving at that demephasized edge are different than more common methods, the result is about the same.

Here is a passage from the foreground I believe it was mostly painted with a large stiff bristle brush. You can see the marks of the individual hairs in the strokes. That gives it a striated grass-like appearance. Seago varies his paint application in order to best describe the particular texture of the elements of the landscape. He was a very fast and fluent painter and the ability to do this was developed over many years. He spent his early career painting society portraits and horses so his draftsmanship was impeccable. Usually loose painters that are good, have started out painting tightly.


Say, that might make a dandy neck tattoo!

Here is the sky, here Seago is pulling strokes from a large bristle brush over his textured ground again. See the darker clouds soften because they are dragged across the sky beneath them. Seagos ground, besides being rough was absorbent, He added gesso ( real gesso not the contemporary acrylic counterfeit) to the lead mixture that he used as a priming so that his thirsty ground sucked in the wet paint and allowed for rapid overpainting in a way that a normal ground would not. The rough canvas aided him in his ability to work rapidly.

Here is a bit of the distance from the left hand side or the tableau. This is thinly painted, see how the ground shows so clearly through it? Seago is varying his paint thickness for two reasons. Firstly to give the illusion of distance and less resolution, thinner passages tend to drop back from a roughly handled fore ground. But the other and perhaps more important reason, is to provide contrast to his roughly painted passages. In order for some passages to look rough it is most effective to have them share the canvas with thinly painted passages. The thinly painted passages heighten the effect of the thick ones by contrast, just as a spot of dark near a light passage will draw attention to the brightness of that area.

Above is the immediate foreground. It is very thickly painted. See the rough crudeness of the paint? this was probably troweled on with his knife and gives the illusion of texture to the field's freshly turned earth . Seago has thrown some directional signals in there too, the furrows encourage us to follow them deeper into the middle ground of the painting.



A view from the back yard of the Sunset Hill Inn

As many of you know, each year I teach a series of workshops called Snowcamp at a historic inn up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The first session is filled but I do have spaces left in the other. This is a course in winter painting skills and open to all levels of expertise from beginner to self important semi professional.

The Sunset Hill House, a charming old wooden hotel from the days before automobiles, takes care of all our needs including meals served in our own private dining room. Because we eat together, the workshop is a total immersion experience from breakfast until evening. We get a lot done on that schedule. We also get the opportunity to meet and befriend fellow painters.

I teach the workshop right outside the enormous back veranda of the inn, or under that if it is actually snowing. There is no need to carry equipment any distance and if you get cold you can run inside and warm yourself by the fire. If you would like to be there this year here is the link to sign up!