Twilight Thoughts

I think that many artists come up with thoughts for painting ideas on monumental scales, but not necessarily meaning large. Just incredibly interesting ideas to explore, with a plethora of visions in the head, for which you only hope you can possibly live long enough to attempt the half of them. It can sometimes appear painful, but it is certainly not a tragedy. I keep them in the back of my mind, knowing that they are taking on different forms, and I will pull them out of the pot once I can. Some images of places and things mark me for life, and I never need or want a camera, though I use one also sometimes for sentimental reasons, show my family where I am, etc. Making a painting of something, instead, is a special thing indeed, even if it happens for a few minutes. An artist like me gets taken over by color, light, the elements in a way that kids go dancing in the rain. You get cold without knowing it, but goodness is it fun for the brain and heart. And also great exhilaration if you can get to home safe before the real world sinks in.

Here are a few more of my most recent paint sketches. These are between 20 x 30 cm and 30 x 40 cm, and though I would love to spend more time with some of them, the “landscape” changes, so I do what I can in the time I have. I like how it causes me to be even more efficient with color mixing, as I feel more accurate each time with the exercize.

Mountains of Things

As promised, here are a few of my recent sketches in what I would like to call my new series of Interior Landscapes. I have become quite a twilight painter as of recently; other concerns and dedications have taken away from my painting time. As a result, rather than be annoyed by this, I chose to paint that beautiful chasing light that floods through my apartment at the close of the day. It is a rush to try to capture it, so I must mix colors and paint quickly and abstractly. Most of the sketches were done in about an hour, and though I will try to return to some of them, I do like the purity of direct observation of form and color. One might think that I have neglected my “housewife” duties, but when I see these mountains of color forms, I think of painting them, rather than cleaning up. Alas, it does get tidied afterwards and the bed remade, only to take on new convolutions the next day. My kitten appears in quite a few, and not out of choice for the composition, but because she follows me wherever I go to paint and then seeks out a comfortable place to hang out, often looking up as if to ask, “is this pose okay?”

In a few short days, I am off to Italy to several different locations in Tuscany; a ten-day trip for work not related to my painting, I will not have time to do anything other than soak up the atmosphere of the stunning countryside. I will be buying myself a proper camera, however, so that I can produce better resolution photographs of my paintings at last.

True Needs


“Searching”, 90 x 120 cm, oil on linen

Though I have been busy painting new things, I am at the moment unable to share them, hence my lack of recent posts. My horrible camera stopped working on the same day that my cellphone stopped working. Though I cringe at all of the contacts I lost and the inability to photograph anything, I am actually very calm about it all. Over the past two years I have become ever more reclusive. I found it increasingly more difficult to paint with other people around me, whether they are talking on a phone or painting also. I had thought that by closing down my school in Florence and painting alone at home, I might find the peaceful atmosphere I was seeking to devote myself entirely to my painting. Still, however, people eventually learned where I lived, and though it might be nice to have visitors, I gradually grew more upset by the “pop-by visits,” urgent text messages, telephone calls. Changing countries certainly solved that situation! I am loving the ability to spend entire days observing and thinking without interruption or needing to work in short spurts between teaching duties. Lunch consists of the quickest sandwich possible. Social activities, phone calls, computer work, running, grocery shopping, and cooking – these are reserved for the appropriate time, after sundown when the natural light has faded and I can no longer see my subject or colors. Until I post new works, thought I would share some recent painting sales before Christmas, and some true words from Albert Pinkham Ryder.


“La Contessa,” 50 x 60 cm, oil on linen

THE ARTIST NEEDS BUT A ROOF

The artist needs but a roof, a crust of bread, and his easel, and all the rest God gives him in abundance. He must live to paint and not paint to live. He cannot be a good fellow; he is rarely a wealthy man, and upon the pot boiler is inscribed the epitaph of his art.
The artist should not sacrifice his ideals to a landlord and a costly studio. A rain-tight roof, frugal living, a box of colors, and God’s sunlight through the windows keep the soul attuned and the body vigorous for one’s daily work. The artist should once and forever emancipate himself from the bondage of appearance and the unpardonable sin of expending on ignoble aims the precious ointment that should serve only to nourish the lamp burning before the tabernacle of his muse.

–Albert Pinkham Ryder

November News

backlighting

Well, autumn has almost arrived in Israel, beginning with powerful thunderstorms last week leaving pools of water for me to sludge through on my way home from Jerusalem. It is still sandal season this week, but at last I am in need of a sweater and jeans.

I have not been at the easel often recently, for exciting reasons I will share soon, but I was able to work on this painting sketch above (50 x 65 cm). My intent was not to do another self-portrait (I still have no grasp of Hebrew to approach people for model requests), but rather to focus on the backlighting scheme, how everything is painted gray at first, belongs within tones of gray and only lines of light delineate the elements in the painting. Sadly, this photograph shows more contrast than seeing the original.

I don’t tend to like “obvious” paintings, the ones where you know instantaneously what you are looking at. I prefer putting important elements in the shadow, elevating something apparently plain by rendering it more fully, alluding to the absence of someone or something. I guess I just like to make paintings that you can only understand more fully if you look at it more slowly.

I have some tremendous inspiration for an upcoming set of painting series, which will focus on my love of, and educational background in, humanism. Some will be dark, others outdoors, and for still others I will need a ladder. I have a few model “victims” in mind other than me and my cat, and I look forward to beginning them, to seeing where this melding of knowledge, memory, and in-depth observation will lead.

Theory Schmeory

My “art education” apparently started at a very early age. 5 to be exact. I was in kindergarten and once a week we had time set apart to do art. Artsy craftsy is a more appropriate term, but I reveled in it. I remember with sincere fondness the sequins I chose to adorn my paper crown of David, the pipe cleaners for the crown of thorns, and the colored cotton balls I carefully glued down on my lamb of God. (Yes, I was sent to a small private Lutheran school, ugh ugh. During my nine years there, we did many art projects, mostly secular rather than religious though)

One day, however, the teacher decided to give us an introductory Lesson on Real Art Theory. She pulled out the papier mache balloons we had made from the time before, and explained that we were going to pop the balloon inside and cut the form into a flower. I remember trying to carve petals carefully with the scissors. She then pulled out pots of red, yellow and blue paint, and asked us to choose one. I chose yellow.


Egg, painting by Duane Keiser

Then she pulled out pots of green, purple, and orange paint, and assigned each of us the Complementary Color of the Primary Color we first chose. I received purple.


Hole No. 2, painting by Emily Eveleth

She then instructed all eight of us to mix together our primary color with the complementary color and use this mixture to paint our flowers.

I was crushed, I remember it well. I mixed the two together and out came this sludge, this brown bubbling mass that had lost all sense of the beauty of yellow and purple. I wondered how on earth it was fair and right to cover a delicate paper flower with dirty paste. And following the teacher’s orders, I and the others painted our flowers with this fudge which recalled anything but chocolate, though I tried really hard to see it that way. I looked at my brown flower with the greatest sadness, and then looked up. The entire room was filled with brown paint. I was surrounded by shit, and I was deeply upset.

This drawing below is one of the few that I have still have from youth. We had a swingset in our backyard, decorated with overlapping circles and a bit of rust. I loved it (I still go on swingsets when noone is looking), and so I drew it. We did not have a pond, but a kiddie pool, and the colored autumn leaves and dyslexic date show I would have been 6 years old at the time. Not long after the complementary color lesson therefore, and yet there is no sign of that important lesson in Art Theory being applied here. Thank goodness. This was just me looking, trying to get the feeling that the two-seater swing was at an angle, giving each leaf its color and shape, the chain its rings. The part that surprised me, though, is what I found on the back. If you look carefully, you can see through the paper that I had started this drawing on the other side, putting the horizon line right in the middle. I must not have liked it, so I started over. This was a matter of preference, not a learned rule, of something not seeming quite “right,” that the sky was further up and so I needed more space.

Perhaps ever since the brown flower episode, I developed a mistrust of institutional art education. Many years later I tried studying further, in high school, university, privately and at an atelier, but I always felt alone and defiant, knowing that I was committed to drawing and painting what I believed was truthful and not because someone else told me so. I preferred to investigate things myself, to try to see deeply on my own and not because I was supposed to see something. To this day, I have yet to observe a brown and say to myself, “Ah, I see yellow and purple.” Browns are infinitely richer than a formula.

Looking Squarely


A for apple. Oil on green ceramic tile, 8 x 8 inches

I have been thinking a lot lately, perhaps more than the usual. Mostly about trying to understand how I can make good art, not stupid paintings, and how this desire is linked very much to understanding what it means to be a human being. How to swim in your cappuccino, not just sip it.

Some of you may know that up until about a year ago I lived in Florence, Italy. When I decided to make the decision to close down my school and move my things back to the US, it involved dealing with well over a hundred paintings and drawings. Each canvas taken off the stretcher bars and rolled together with the others. The detested failures tossed. Inventory lists made. The panels packed into a large suitcase. I shipped my clothing and books over, but I flew over with all of my paintings as my baggage to avoid loss or damage via postal delivery. I learned the magnitude of this task.

Some of you may also know that I flew to Israel in February on an impermanent basis. My former experience of bulk has caused me to change how and what I paint, out of fear of the sheer volume I will likely create in artwork: no more big canvases on stretcher bars, panels not to exceed 50 x 70 cm, and I have even gone to working on paper for its lightness. When I find something new I really want to paint, I question its value over something I have already painted, and often I paint right on top of the old one despite knowing that technically this is not a good idea, and I never would have done it in the past. The important thing I suppose is that I do have some way to record what I am seeing and feeling.


Square Me. On the easel now, an attempt at a completely unblurred stroke painting. I am thinking about whether or not I want to include my cat in this mugshot. Oil on yellow ceramic tile, 12 x 12 inches

Recently I realized that I have already pretty much filled up my quota of panel volume, and sadly I greatly prefer them over linen or paper for their hardness and lack of texture. I was then walking one day in the factory zone near where I live, and I came across some abandoned tiles. These were not just tossed squares of ceramic to me: they were Art Materials. I lugged a few home and went back periodically for others. Of course, one is not supposed to paint on ceramic tile with oil paint; how can it possibly have permanence or resistance to change and breakage (one already broke on me, smashing onto the floor in a hundred pieces)? I did switch my medium and started using Liquin, considering it one of the most ridiculously permanent substances one can add to oil paint. Looking at these new tiles now, I have come to appreciate them for what they are: not an oil painting, but a craft, a homage to the original use of the term, a delicate and fragile one created with the same amount of observation involved in painting on linen. They are heavy though, so I will have to reluctantly return to paper and linen. And I do not have a clue about how I could ever possibly ship them.

Close Encounters with the Masters


Tribute to Velazquez: “Giving Velazquez a Hand” (title courtesy of Paul Polak, see below) Oil on linen, 70 x 100 cm

Every once in a while, I like to do something which some consider classical or “academic,” to realign myself in my place in history as simply an artist with much yet to learn. Much of what I know now about painting was self-taught, gained by intense observation of great paintings in person to try to understand how the paintings were created from the very first layers to the final touches. Out of all of the artists I studied, it was Velazquez who “taught” me the most. He revolutionized the process of painting by showing how to paint efficiently and think in terms of mass rather than line, thus making painting easier. The labor of painting was no longer addressed with minute brushes, long awaited glazes or small gradations of tones in color mixing. He learned that the proper mastery of a bristle brush, a distant viewpoint, a limited palette, and calculated paint strokes not only allowed him to paint with more ease and speed, but also created works which seem to breathe in the shadows and glow in the light. This learned ease of painting allowed him to devote more time on developing visionary concepts, composition choices, luminosity and in general on great picture-making.


Diego Velazquez, “Portrait of a Young Man” c. 1629. Oil on canvas, 89 x 69 cm. Alte Pinatothek, Munich

Last year in Florence, I was looking through one of my volumes on Velazquez and I came across this “Portrait of a Young Man.” I was particularly drawn to it because I realized how very much of what I was teaching my students not only came through an understanding and admiration of Velazquez’ painting approach, but that almost all phases of his process and thus also my teaching were present in this painting. I only felt bad that he had not had time to finish the hand. So I thought, why not “copy” this Velazquez but finish the hand? One can learn so much in the process, despite it not being entirely original. Hence my piece up above, done from an amazing model I found in Florence, finishing the hands, adding a greener background, and changing the color of the drape thrown over the shoulder to add a bit of color.

I painted it in the apartment I found in Borgo degli Albizi. I had decided to find a new place to live that allowed me to have my own studio at home with the aching hope to find one with north lit windows, something uncannily difficult to explain to apartment agents. I did a quick search on the internet and came across a number for a suitably sized place, made an appointment, and then went to look at it. It was incredible, the owner opened the doors to an enormous room with a wall of unblocked north lit windows and a bed over to the side. This of course was unbelievable enough and I said I would take it. The owner, however, insisted on trying to convince me more, showing me the view of the duomo from the living room, the balcony, the Morandi etchings on the walls, and the old fireplace kitchen. He then asked if I had ever heard of Pietro Annigoni, and I said of course; this apartment, together with the one upstairs originally, was once the home and studio of Annigoni. The very room where I slept and painted the above painting and others was where Annigoni painted his famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth II of England, an incredible painting which confirmed Annigoni’s place in art history:


Pietro Annigoni, “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England” 1955

Upon moving into the apartment, the owner was excited to tell me that he was convinced that it was my destiny to move in: as he was going through the books left in the apartment by prior guests, he found several postcards and posters from one of my solo exhibitions in Florence. I agreed that it certainly seemed like some sort of a sign, only hoping that I would get along well with Annigoni’s historical presence.

I painted several pieces in this home, including several scenes of the very room where Annigoni’s painting was created, moving furniture and adding quirky elements like these here. Two of the whole “Annigoni” series now belong to the apartment’s owner.


“Blue Slippers and Goldfish”


“Nocturne”


“Lavender Jacket”


“The Bed and the Box of Unanswered Questions”

While living there, I received a commission to complete a large painting of a Madonna and two saints from a church in southern Italy. Perhaps it is very fitting that I completed the project in Annigoni’s former studio, as he spent several of his last years concentrating on paintings and frescos for various churches around Florence. Though I no longer have the painting, to commemorate the honor of receiving such an assignment, I created this painting for myself as a remembrance piece:
“The Madonna Commission”

I then received an email from a contact in the US asking me whether I could not meet with Paul Polak, a noted philanthropist who was arriving in Florence to receive an award from the city for his brilliant achievements in reducing worldwide poverty. He has written a book called “Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail” which you can learn about on his website. He and his wife came to visit me in my studio in Borgo degli Albizi and it was an absolute delight to get to know them. While looking at my paintings, he remarked on the Velazquez copy I had created, and when I told him the story of the painting, he said, “So the title of the painting is ‘Giving Velazquez a Hand’?” I laughed, saying that was a great name for it, so hence its title now, thanks to Paul.

Morandi by the Bed

I spent this summer having my own entire season of artistic block. There was little I wanted to paint, or nothing that seemed worthy to paint, or certainly not in the way I paint, which I also began to question. I started a few, only to abandon them the next day in sheer disgust. I painted a couple apples, an olive tree and even attempted a painting from my imagination. They are not horrible, but I also would never suggest that they might in any way contribute to the world of good art. Ah well.

There are many artists who simply get out of bed, grab their painting gear, and head down to the corner to paint the pretty drugstore, but I am not one of them. I spend more time wandering around, just observing. When I come across something that seems worthy of becoming a painting, I really take my time to consider the subject, its elements and how they change with weather and time of day. Sometimes the kind of light dictates the mood I want the painting to have, and other times I decide whether I want to render the details fully or if I should paint more broadly. All is based on the subject, in terms of what and how I paint. It also means that I pretty much paint anything, but not everything. I particularly prefer subjects which incorporate a series of different observations, from the overall abstract patterns of light and shade, the inclusion of important details, glazing and scumbling effects, the feeling of air, the employment of color harmony or accents, and a certain quirkiness in the subject, something which is one step away from how things are supposed to be. The complexity of the project is a thrill for me, as is a longing to play with the illusionary possibilities of paintings.


“Morandi by the Bed,” Oil on linen, 14 x 18 inches

The final emersion from my summer of artist’s block happened when I recently spent a weekend in Jerusalem, having been offered a friend’s apartment. When I walked in and saw the bedroom, I knew it could be a painting. I actually decided to sleep on the sofa in the living room in order to not disturb the pillows or mattress cover. I loved the presence of the Morandi print, and the gray, uncovered pillows, the crooked carpet, and the way the light chased from yellow to blue across the wall. There are still a few things more I want to touch, but overall I am satisfied, and I now have several new ideas for paintings. Will share them in due course.