Monday, June 22, 2009

there are no mistakes in painting

...but there is still plenty of pain.

That's my new motto!

A few months ago I finished a commission that I had started before Auden was born. I remember stretching the canvas when I was hugely pregnant, and I remember carrying a tiny sleeping Auden in the Bjorn for hours while I slapped paint around, week after week. The piece survived the move -- oh the hand-wringing of packing your own art -- and hung around, neglected and not changing, for months while I tried to find my groove again.

I had a stormy relationship with this painting for most of its evolution. I fought with it. I pleaded with it. I resented it. I got sudden bursts of creative clarity, tried something new and bold, and then just as quickly changed my mind and despaired of ever finding a resolution. Have you ever read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein? It was kind of like that.

Sometime around February or March, the piece quietly found its equilibrium. After a few weeks of seeing it on the wall, I realized I didn't want to do anything else to it. Not only did I no longer hate it, I was surprised at how luminous and textured the colors had become. And just like that, it was done.

Now the painting is safely in its proper home with its new family, so I can share with you the process in all its gruesome glory.

Here is the first step, a thin wash of color to map out my composition. We were going for an abstract landscape. I actually kind of like this one the best:

Originally I planned to break up the ground area into several cells of warm colors, contrasted by spots of cooler greys and blues -- an idea similar to a series I did years ago inspired by the lovely and translucent stained-glass look of petrified wood (from the forest in Arizona, of course):

That looked too tight and constrained to me, so I started to break up the field a little, and also lightened it up. This is where it started to get circus-y:

Ack! Time to turn it down a notch:

It was like that for a long time. In fact, we have a picture of me in labor with the painting, at that stage, in the background. You can imagine that after BABY OH MY GOD BRAND NEW TINY BABY there wasn't a whole lot of painting happening for a while.

So maybe it was the postpartum hormones that made me take this next step. There was too much red and orange, I wanted to bring in more earthy greys and tawny browns with just highlights of bright color:

This next phase was affectionately dubbed "massacre on the beach" by Jason (he always comes up with clever titles for my work):

Yeah. So obviously that was not the right shade of red. Or maybe it's the red plus the yellow ochre that makes it look like a fractalized Ronald McDonald? Meanwhile the sky area was getting lighter and more opaque, mainly because I am heavy handed with the palette knife.

In the next stage I softened the colors again, and introduced some horizontal lines, hoping to create something dynamic in the middle. Still, that red, though. Oy:

By this point I was thinking, Okay, just do something bold and unusual and unlike yourself. I needed to tip the balance. However, big black splotches -- though bold and unusual and whatever -- were not the right direction:

Sigh. There's the experimenting, and then there's the recovering one must do afterward:

After that phase, I forgot to take pictures after each of the last few painting sessions -- a terrible oversight -- so the finished piece looks like it came out of nowhere. Basically I figured out that all the palette knifing had given the paint a heavy, thick, lifeless quality; and that I was really fighting to keep the red as well as that slanted horizon.

I did a small mock-up in my sketchbook, trying out some different colors so that I wouldn't keep guessing on the large scale. I tried lighter lights, darker darks, and added some swipes of cerulean (possibly my all-time favorite color). That combination looked so immediately harmonious and effortless that I knew I had to let everything else go.

For the final step I painted with a brush in thin glazes (oil paint mixed with galkyd), and only used the palette knife a little bit to create some pebbly texture right at the horizon line. A subtle brick red blended alongside a dark umber turned out to be all the red I needed. The yellow ochre, too -- thinned out, quieted down, and dispered into light bands -- found its right relation.

The grey at the bottom became more dynamic through all those layers, too, with soft variations in hue, and a few spots where the ochres are reflected from the middle.

Here it is:

I was so worried throughout the whole process that I was just messing up, over and over, and would not be able to redeem it. This, I am convinced, is why painting is so hard: it takes a huge dose of faith and self-confidence every time I sit down at the easel. If I don't like something, I have to let it dry and let it be ugly and trust that somehow -- somehow! -- it will be important to the finished piece.

And so. All that palette knifing, all the texture, all the wrong colors underneath, all the layers added up to these quiet fields of undulating and luminous colors. I swear every time it happens it wasn't me, it was magic.



ms. c said...

it is perfectly phenomenal.
how do i get me one? (i've told you before- i have an expanse of dining room wall in need of some artwork.)

Anonymous said...

I love reading your blog about our painting! Some very interesting phases there Robins.:) You're amazing and it won't be your last commission from us.:)

Jason said...

i feel like of all your paintings, this one has been the biggest teacher. Glad you stuck with it. The picture of the end result doesn't do justice to the real thing. It is luminous and rich and completely your own.

robin said...

Ms. C... send me your email, I can't find it on your blog. Let's chat!

Emily said...

I agree - I love it when you blog about your work... that's not to say you should post LESS about lemonface there, but it's fascinating to think about the processes behind visual art, something I've let go fallow for a long time now. I love hearing you ponder about the specifics; it's really interesting!