Saturday, August 29, 2009


On this warm and rainy Saturday morning, I took down an exhibition of my large work, A Meditation on the Stations of the Cross. Somehow, there is something just as satisfying about bringing work home as there is about putting a show up. I find it more peaceful. After 30 years of installing and uninstalling shows, I have a routine for wrapping and unwrapping, taping, and packing into my car.

Installation is always cluttered with anxiety and other feelings about how the work will be received, will there be any last-minute disasters, and will the work actually fit in the car. Will the hosting organization welcome my input about how the work should be hung--or not? Will the press actually cover the show?

Taking a show down is like bringing your children home from college. You know they'll be going off again eventually but it's nice to have them back in the house even for a little while. My son, Tom, just moved all of his boxes out of the front hall into his apartment in New York City where he'll start graduate school in a few weeks. My art,swathed in bubble wrap and plastic, has taken their place.

Now it's time to separate an egg and get painting.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Linguini Supper

Last summer, when Joyce first asked me if I would like to come to the annual linguini supper for the members of the Wednesday night drawing group, I accepted. Another artist in the group explained that it would be a thoroughly enjoyable occasion--we'd start out at 3 PM drawing or painting from the model who (weather permitting) would pose in Joyce's garden for a few hours. Then Joyce would serve the linguini supper al fresco. It sounded like a great idea--anything involving drawing and pasta had to be a good time.

I took the afternoon off from work and made my way to Joyce's farm. I decided to work on a smaller scale and brought my traveling watercolor set. The garden was a lovely spot and the model was excellent. Soon, I was lost in the concentration needed to work in an unfamliar medium. By the time the model was ready to quit, I had finished a nice little watercolor.

I wasn't really prepared for what awaited us at the foot of the hill by the house--you can see from the photo that Joyce set an elegant table. By the time we had sipped away a glass of wine or two, consumed a variety of cheeses and homemade capponata and rounds of crusty Italian bread, the sun had gone down, the candles were lit and the scene became pure magic. More artists arrived who hadn't been able to make the drawing session--I knew most of them or knew of them. Many I hadn't seen in many years. We all had one thing in common--at one time or another we had been part of the Wednesday night group.

Soon, Joyce and other artists who had helped her in the kitchen brought out large, steaming bowls of linguini and incredible seafood including shrimp, lobster, littlenecks and other fruits of the sea. Calling this the linguini supper was an understatement. Topped off with salad and cooked greens fresh from the garden and a generous helping of conversation about art--theory, criticism, news and plain old gossip--I thought I'd died and went to heaven.

That was last year. It was a magical night. This year's supper was two nights ago and was equally enjoyable. I saw some old friends and made some new ones. And I had some better water color brushes on hand now that I'm working in egg tempera.

The linguini supper comes very close to the visions that I had before I went to art school of what life as an artist would be like. Visions straight out of Hollywood laced with the angst of Anthony Quinn or Kirk Douglas--visions of a lifestyle that was never realized because they weren't based on reality.

If I can have one or two nights like the linguini supper in a year, I can sustain the solitary hours in the studio needed to produce meaningful work. I raise my glass and my brush to Joyce--an artist in all she does--for providing this night.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Coming into Focus

Since my last post I've put in about 20 more hours on Progress Thomas. To be perfectly honest, until today I wasn't really sure that I'd be able to pull this off--neither head seemed to be taking shape. This is my first attempt at an egg tempera portrait on human scale and it felt like the layers and layers of paint weren't going anywhere. Today, I saw the first glimmer of what Ihope this might become and breathed a sigh of relief. There's still along way to go but now I actually believe I might actually end up somewhere at the end. If you click on the closeup above, you can see the linear painting technique.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wednesday Night Drawing

I first moved into the circle of the Wednesday Night Drawing Group in 1978 about one year after I graduated from Pratt. The group had already been meeting on Wednesday nights to share a model and camaraderie for a number of years at that point. It's still going. Some people have retired from the group while others have passed on. I have moved in and out of its sphere depending on available time and geography. This time I've been back for nearly 2 years.

A binding happens when people make art together over a long period of time. Many in the group are long-time friends outside of the group. I am not one of them. But even if we don't know a lot about a member in that personal way, you can tell a lot about someone by the work they do. I call it the Wednesday Night Drawing Group but the Wednesday Night Group is a more accurate description because at least half of the people paint. As members of the Monmouth County Art Alliance, we are permitted to rent the large studio behind our storefront gallery for the same 2 hours each week for six-month blocks. We hire a model who takes a pose for the entire 2 hours--with appropriate breaks of course.

My first encounter with this group was as a model. At the time I was not a figurative artist--I was creating large, 3 dimensional wall pieces of balsa wood, handmade Japanese paper and water color--very delicate and very large. I was, however, fascinated by this group that drew from a single pose for the entire session. The longest pose any model had struck at Pratt was 20 minutes.

A few years later, when my foray into abstraction was extinguished by my insatiable need to convey narrative through drawing, I sought out this group and found the ability to bring a drawing to resolution a welcome exercise.

Even though I have never developed paintings from any of the drawings created in the Wednesday night group, the work of drawing--of sharpening my hand-eye coordination, of handling various materials and developing a fineness of my favorite element--line--informed all of the other work I did.

Despite all my years of experience, I am amazed that I still have difficulty with proportions -- I can render a beautiful mixture of line and tone that is either delicate or strong, depending on my mood that at first glance has the look of an "old master" work in red conte. It's the second look that makes it clear that the head is totally too big for the body--or the hands are far too small. I won't notice this, of course, until I'm done. It is humbling. I learn.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Making Progress on Progress Thomas

Things are moving along. I've completed some modeling of the larger portrait and the garments on both figures. As I've worked on this painting, I've realized that I was too cavalier with the early layers of sponged on paint--I'm having to do extra work to mask the rough edges and textures between the colors. I'm hoping it won't matter once I've applied enough layers cross hatching. Time will tell. The first image is of the entire piece. The lower left image is a detail of the right figure. The small image on the lower right shows the tracing I keep handy to reestablish the drawing when it gets lost in the layers of paint. I'm getting an early start tonight--should be working by 7:30 PM.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Solitary Pursuit

Painting is a solitary pursuit. We can talk about art together, draw together, and even do some painting together but, when it comes right down to it, most art gets made in the solitude of the studio. If, like me, you're an artist who also works another job to earn a living, that doesn't leave a lot of time for friends, family, or even the humdrum of daily life.

The only time our work brings us together with others is when we have an exhibition--and that is usually only at the opening reception.

In some ways the internet has changed this dynamic in that it has become easier to share images of works in progress or recently finished works with other artists and friends. I remember back in the 80s and 90s sharing snapshots of new works with distant friends in the mail--yes actual photographs sent in envelopes with stamps. We also had very big phone bills--the only way to keep in touch with artists in distant cities. Color photocopies from slides were also a big thing.

For years I listened to talk radio (NPR) while I worked--something about keeping the left side of my brain occupied, leaving the right side free to do its own thing on the canvas. Lately I'm finding the talk somewhat distracting -- perhaps because the news is just too depressing. Music has become a more constant companion.

Working in egg tempera is such a zen experience--just keep painting and the painting keeps on becoming. The progress of individual paintings is still uncharted territory for me. Unlike oil painting, I have no idea how long a painting will take. Each new work is s first--a first small still life, a first small portrait and now a first double portrait with nearly life-size heads. It's both exciting and stressful. I will press on.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Perfect Day

Today was a perfect day--brought my car into the shop in town early and then walked back home over the two bridges to get my exercise in before the heat of the day. I saw a great blue heron and an egret. When I got home, I got down to painting. Set up my new palette made of a sheet of clear glass which I spray-painted white on one side and then taped it to a thick piece of foam core--much easier to make pigment pastes and then temper the paints. Also easier to keep them from drying out.

The faces in Progress Thomas are beginning to take shape. I managed to start modeling some of the garments, too. How much easier it is to work when you have the right setup--and how much less paint is wasted.

Finished up at 5 PM with another walk into town to pick up my car.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Painter's Cramp

Tonight I was able to put in 3 hours of work on my double portrait, Progress Thomas, despite the brutal heat. After making thousands of hatch marks in a muted violet gray mixed from ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, and titanium white, I have the painter's equivalent of writer's cramp--but the background is already beginning to have that quietly energized egg tempera aura. I'll need to remember to stop occasionally to give my hand and eyes a break--but when you're in the zone, its so easy to overdo.

I'm still thinking about the Graham Nickson show I saw at the Monmouth Museum (on the campus of Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, NJ) a few weeks ago. Jewel-like water colors of "the edge of the day" in vibrant colors painted in a manly way. Brilliant colors laid down with the authority of the oil painter he is--a show worth seeing. I encountered Mr. Nickson nearly ten years ago when I attended the Drawing Marathon at the New York Studio School. He is the dean of the school and the originator of the Drawing Marathon--an amazing artistic experience. Every artist should do it at least once in his or her life.

Time to turn in.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Painting in My Head

Today was spent in my other life--at the work I do to earn my living. I used to have a more flexible schedule as a consultant. My life situation changed quite dramatically 5 years ago. Now I'm free to paint only on weekends and holidays. I usually spend my vacation time painting, too. On days like today, when I don't get home until late and my eyes are too far gone to start working on a drawing or painting, I paint in my head. Whatever piece I'm working on, I visualize mixing the colors, laying in layers of paint. Like on a graphics program, when you paint in your head, there is a very effective "undo" button. Maybe that's why when I actually get down to work, I rarely hesitate over what to do.

That was the biggest challenge in making such a drastic medium change as I am making from oil to egg tempera. After working in oil for so many years, I had an order of tasks that I always followed. I always had a plan of attack--which part of the painting to work on first, how to blend the colors, when to start glazing--when to stop. When I made the change to a totally new medium, I found I no longer had that sense of authority that enabled me to move forward from the initial drawings all the way through to the last color glaze.

I came away from Koo Schadler's workshop with a roadmap. I knew what to do first and which bits of knowledge and experience were portable from oil painting to egg tempera (and which were not). Now I can paint in my head again because I can imagine what needs to be done.

That is not to say that there won't be surprises--that still happened in oil paint even after more than 30 years. If there were no surprises at all, what would have been the point in continuing?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The First Time

Putting these first words in a brand new blog is like putting the first marks on a brand new canvas—except here I have no preparatory studies to guide my progress. Today I worked for 8 hours on a new egg tempera painting—the second start for this one. The first painting was done prior to attending a workshop with egg tempera artist, Koo Schadler. It was done on a panel from RealGesso, which was not coated on the back and had already started to warp. After the workshop, I learned that TrueGesso, makers of panels on untempered hardboard and gessoed on both sides to prevent warping, was back in business. This also gave me an opportunity to correct some issues with the drawing from which I was working.

I never expected to be working so freely in a medium so known for its linear qualities. I never worked so freely in oil. In fact, I had gotten into a rut and didn’t know how to get out. Here, I used sponging techniques learned in the workshop to speed up the process of laying in the first layers of paint—egg tempera is executed by applying many layers of paint—sometimes hundreds of layers depending on the artist’s sensibility. This building up of thin layers of opaque and transparent colors is the secret to the luminous quality for which this medium is prized. At this stage, my painting looks semi abstract. In the next session, which will probably be next weekend, I’ll begin rendering the form in the traditional “hatch” marks. Can’t wait—I’m obsessed with cross hatching!

How crazy that I waited more than 20 years to give this medium a try. Will I ever go back to oil painting? I don’t know.

This layering technique is strongly linked to work I did as a young artist back in the late 70s and early 80s—watercolor on handmade wood cut paper stretched over 3 dimensional grids made of balsawood. I built up color by laying in transparent water color with large hake brushes, alternating complements to form subtle grays that resonated on the paper. I find myself using those same color combinations now and achieving the same glow.

I seem to have overcome the fear of having nothing to say in my blog.