One Small Painting on a Compositional Journey
While teaching a four-week workshop focusing on composition for the Woodstock School of Art, I began this 12″x12″ painting.
Here is the reference.
I almost always eliminate some detail from my reference photos, and change the location, size, shape and color of elements so much that I am recreating the image. Much as I am taken with the view that I choose and the moment in time it captures, everything I do pictorially is in service of the overall painting.
Here is my first version.
When I took the above shot I had already moved the white stripe twice, ending in a spot in between the other two tries. As you can see, I eliminated the cars to the right and the center line, which veers so sharply left that is squeezes against the car with the headlights (which is the focus of my painting) and divides the picture plane oddly.
I included the phone pole to the right and a very faint indication of the yield sign on the left.
I had several critiques, at this point, as I got away from the piece for a bit and came back. One was that the upper edge of the mountain too closely follows the top edge of the treeline, creating a shape that is less interesting than it could be and also encourages the eye to roll down and off the side of the picture plane to the right.
A successful composition keeps the eye circulating, starting with a focal point and then allowing it to move around the painting. This is something that is not so much a road map from the outset, but explored each time through a combination of conscious decision-making—where am I putting these headlights?—and intuitive painting. Then, when something doesn’t look quite right, getting it to where it does is a process of trial and error.
In terms of color, the blues of the mountain and the off-white of the sky seemed too bright for the time of day that would throw the road into such deep shadow. It is hard to see this in the photograph, but this brightness drew attention away from the headlights.
The below is my next version. I am starting to get an edge at the top of the mountain that is more interesting—not so bumpity-bump. I tried painting in a faint back mountain above and then painted it back out again. I gave a little more height and brightness to the yield sign.
The interaction between the tree line and the top of the mountain still didn’t feel right, and the shape of the shadowy trees going off to the right left me dissatisfied. I had been thinking about lifting the phone poll a bit higher, and decided to do that, as well create a higher shape on the right that alludes more strongly to trees or bushes on the right side of the road.
In what turned out to be my final version, I changed the direction that the highest tree is leaning so that it points toward a flat spot on the ridge line (rather than being an upward bump that presses toward another upward bump) and raised the phone pole—much better!
The yield sign went in and out a few more times and then stayed out—-I felt that, much as I liked the shape of it, it fought with the headlights for attention.
The final color is deeper and softer, with the addition of some reds around the headlights that are very subtly echoed in the off-white of the sky.
And last, I changed the curve of the bottom of the bushes as they meet the verge on the right, from a down curve that follows the white line to an up curve as the shape goes off the picture plane. That small adjustment, really kind of an after-thought, was my favorite tweak of all. It created a satisfying shape with the shoulder that funnels the eye back into the painting and toward the headlights.
Because of all of the—to me, absolutely essential— changes, this small piece took more time to complete than the 30″x40″ that I did as a demo for the workshop, but which needed very little adjustment once I started painting. It is impossible to know at the beginning of the journey how long or complicated it will be!
The result of this particular journey is a simple painting, quietly moody.
Shape and Mood: 2 Paintings so Alike and so Different
In representational art, the formal aspects of a painting can contribute to a narrative or mood just as readily as the descriptive. This is a theme that I discuss often in workshops, talks, and here on my blog. I recently finished two paintings of the same locale and time of year—same day, in fact—using a very similar palette that illustrate this point well.
In fact, the difference between them really boils down to the mood that the shapes create.
In “Lingering”, below, the overall feel of the piece is warm and welcoming, despite the weather depicted being overcast. Putting ourselves in the scene, the misty/drizzly day creates a sheen and depth to colors in the marshes and a sense of intimacy—privacy, almost— within the landscape. On these sorts of days there are fewer people about; the air is thick and embracing; vistas tend to be limited. There is a boundary of trees at the horizon, enclosing the space.
On the formal side, the eye is led into the piece by the wide open shape of the tidal pool at the bottom left, and then is invited to move around by the directionality of soft edges and dispersed accumulations of detail. Variations of color within the areas of orange marsh grasses encourage the eye to linger. Sky and water are a mauve, relating to the coolest of the reds in the marsh.
I would describe “Lingering” as warm; friendly; intimate. And descriptive, for sure.
In the second piece, the color is the same but the feel is much bolder. Now we have a highly structured piece with assertive directionality. The eye is swept into the image by the strong zig-zag created by the edges of the marsh and moves back to a open area with minimal detail along the horizon. The detail that does exist is necessary to balance the composition, keeping the eye moving within the painting rather than being swept off to the right by the strong edges of the tidal creek.
The description of “Edge of Discovery” could include abstract; expansive; dynamic. Movement within structure.
As I was working on these pieces–about a month apart—I decided independently with each that the image needed some interest in the marsh as it went back in space. To create this, I added the back tidal pools in both cases, and then the evolving paintings clicked into place.
Even here, with a similar solution to a common problem, the feel of these pools is quite different. In “Lingering” there is quite a bit of detail to the two glimpses of white, while in “Edge of Discovery” the bit of water is minimal, austere (and right in the middle!), jibing with the overall reductive composition.
So, when we talk about mood in a landscape painting, we are discussing two things. One is the mood of the moment captured—how would it feel like to be there? The other is the feeling that the lines, shapes, and surface of the painting create for the viewer.
Color relates to both. It reflects the seasons; light; locale; and time of day of the views that we see around us. It also is inherently linked to mood and personal preference.
Kandinsky in his 1910 “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” posits that abstract elements have emotive power in their own right. In comparing these two paintings, it becomes clear how the shapes with their edges and directionality and the overall composition that they create impact the mood projected.
Unlike with color, many people are not consciously aware that these particular formal aspects are actively contributing to their experience of a representational painting. It is up to the artist to be adept at exploring the endless possibilities of these pictoral tools as the painting is being shaped, narrowing the gap between a good painting and an excellent one and finding variation in feel from piece to piece.
What’s been Going on/Is Coming Up, Spring 2015
After a hard and busy winter I am so very happy to be in transition to the warmer season ahead. The work in my studio and recent events gave me a wonderful distraction from the relentless weather in the Northeast, but all logistics and movement are so much easier and more enjoyable with warm sunshine, no snow or ice, and planning that can be relied upon.
My solo show at Gold Gallery in Boston remains up through April 25th.
Everyone has heard how massively hit Boston was with snow this past winter, and the reports were no exaggeration. We had planned a February show, agreeing that since they had February traffic and business, we should go for it.
Sometimes I just love the expression: “Man plans. God laughs.”
After a few postponements, we did open with a reception on March 13th. It was a lovely time for me, with many in-depth questions, especially about my Affinity Series and the multiple-panel pieces.
The gallery brought my work to the AD 20/21 Fair down the street from them a few weeks later. I love the way the work pops on the grey walls.
I wrote a blog post about this multiple-panel piece in the show as an example of how a new idea evolves. This piece has quite a story, involving photos of my son Tony; Maya Lin; Storm King; and many sketches and studies.
Edgewater Gallery of Middlebury, Vermont brought my work to the Affordable Art Fair NYC at the end of March, so I decided to attend. I hadn’t been in several years, and found the whole fair to be well-organized and accessible, a kind of bubble of positive energy. This year was very successful, not surprising with with the quality and variety of work and the good vibe.
I was meeting up with friends and collectors at different intervals for three days running, so I spent quite a bit of time there. The first day I decided to get further involved by collecting information on some of my favorite artists being exhibited at the fair in order to write a blog post about it. This is a review of the work of the five artists that I selected:
I got a first-hand look at how hard the galleriests at these events work as I returned often to the Edgewater booth, enjoying the chance to get to know Kate, Rachel, and Zoe a little better in between their many conversations with fair-goers and invoicing and wrapping sold work. The days were up to 12 hours of standing and smiling and chatting, and they had a great attitude throughout.
I have had several commissions in the first months of this year. Although I am a tonalist by instinct, over the years I have found that I like to meander this way and that with my palette. These five pieces are about as bright as I can imagine going, but I am pleased to see how “me” they look, even with more saturated color.
I recently enjoyed a visit at my friend Marie Vickerilla’s studio. She had new work finished for her upcoming show in New Jersey that I was determined to see before it left her studio.
Our conversation about this body of work had a lot to do with mixed associations (see my discussion of this in the blog post reviewing the Affordable Art Fair) and complexities of surface. I have always loved Marie’s more minimalist work, and found this new series to be exciting in a different way–lost and found edges and layers; unusual color juxtapositions; and stories begun one place and and finished in another.
From her statement about this series: “Not until after the work is complete do I realize from where the painting has come. From shifting lines holding up a shape, lines and bars moving from place to place, a kind of organization emerges from the randomness, and I find a correlation to some slow-moving event in life.”
Actually, I’ll just say it, since I have before in conversation: I think Marie is a genius. It’s not always apparent to me where and how her decisions are made, but they have amazing clarity, subtlety, and depth—“unique voice” is an understatement.
May 9th: Chace-Randall Gallery (upstairs space), Andes, NY, 10th Anniversary show, 5 – 7 p.m.
A solo at Albert Shahinian Fine Art in Rhinebeck, NY, July 16-Labor Day, reception July 25.
The Shandaken Studio Tour, July 18-19.
A solo or duo at Louisa Gould in Vineyard Haven, MA, August 13-26:
A few new pieces:
A few of my recently sold pieces:
My February workshop “Constructing/Deconstructing the Landscape” at the Woodstock School of Art managed to come off, despite terrible weather, and succeeded in what I had set out to do. A new workshop, it involved an unprecedented amount of planning for me, as I was determined to develop exercises that would lead my students into a deeper analysis of composition and color, and a more conscious understanding how the elements form the whole.
The landscape itself is so seductive that it can actually get in the way of crafting a good painting, so much so that often I see artists plateau in their skill-building, finding it hard to advance to the next level. This workshop was designed for those artists, though I think it also works well for beginners as a step-by-step.
I was concerned that the artists in this workshop would feel constrained by so much structure, but they all surrendered to the process and felt that they learned way more than in a workshop with more open painting time. The exercises are also really fun—I did them myself first to make sure of that.
I will be teaching the same workshop in Provincetown in September, as well as these others coming up in 2015:
Woodstock School of Art, “Landscape in Large Scale” , June 20-23:
Artists Association of Nantucket, “Landscape and Mood”, July 13-15:
Provincetown Artists Association and Museum, “Constructing/Deconstructing the Landscape”, September 14th-17th.
Woodstock School of Art, “Interpreting the Landscape in Oil and Pastel”, October 17-19
I hope to see many friends and followers this spring and summer at a reception, a workshop, or my studio. Many of you have been students, collectors, and friends, in one order or another, and I love to see you show up.