Paintings from Pine Creek: Finale

Morning Fog

Morning Fog

In preparing for our extended visit to the old family home,  Cedar Pines, along Pine Creek in northern Pennsylvania, I realized that the lush green landscape required more than my usual travel supply of small boards. I needed ampler materials so I could stretch myself into the landscape.

Lots of artists don’t work large, and the truth is that large paintings are impractical for most houses. But I love the physicality of working large, of waving my arms, extending my wings; and the actual space on the canvas acts as a challenge — more to fill up, more to detail out, more planes to commit to, bigger brushes to use — all kinds of things that plein air painters for the most part don’t get to play with.

So I packed a large roll of canvas in our 1995 Honda, along with ample supplies of paint, medium, and (big) brushes (I left room for Jer in the driver’s seat). At Cedar Pines, my brother and nephew found me a 4 x 8 piece of plywood to stretch the canvas on (using duct tape, of course) and gifted me a big easel left over from my niece’s wedding.

I needed to work outside as the light and space inside were inadequate.

One canvas sort of stretched -- it needed a bit more muscle.

One canvas almost stretched — it needed a bit more muscle.

I began with a 4 x 4′ piece of canvas, the painting for which I had notions but no fixed ideas. It was not to be a plein air piece, but rather a compilation of many scenes and memories. I propped it on the back porch, with my back to the scenery.

Back Home, in progress, on the back porch of Cedar Pines

Back Home, in progress, on the back porch of Cedar Pines

I started with it on the easel, but discovered quickly that the wind coming up the  Creek can pick up a 4 x 8 piece of plywood as if it were a sail. Jer and I ended up nailing the top of the plywood to an upper porch beam. That kept it from flying away.

After a while, I could go no further with that painting and needed to move along to another big canvas. So I took the 4 x 4 foot one off the board and stretched the 4 x 6 foot on on it.

I wanted this painting to be done plein air, painting the scene across the Creek from the back yard, painting as the fog rose with the dark patches of mountain on the other side, the snags forming their presence in the foreground. I drank my coffee in front of this scene every morning. It is, for me, the essence of Cedar Pines.

Big Canvas propped against the easel in the back yard of Cedar Pines

Big Canvas propped against the easel in the back yard of Cedar Pines

Ever the optimist, I thought I could tie the easel to the porch, fix the plywood to the easel with duct tape, and withstand the wind’s force. Of course, I was wrong; I painted a great deal of the front of my shirt as I spread-eagled against the canvas-and-board, trying to keep it from flipping face down in the grass.

So back to the drawing board:¬† although the view wasn’t what I had in mind, we figured out a solution that stabilized the canvas/plywood and raised it up so I could work on it. I sat the board on the canoe and drilled holes into the it, tying it to the porch railings.

Big canvas sitting on canoe, tied to porch, stabilized by two-by-fours

Big canvas sitting on canoe, tied to porch, stabilized by two-by-fours

Not elegant, but workable.

When the time came to take the paintings back to Oregon, unfinished as they were, we took off the duct tape, rolled up the canvases, put them back in the original box, and off in the Honda they went.

Then they hung in my studio while I studied them, hung in my living room while I studied them, and went back to the studio — where I studied them.

The final paintings, finally done, I think, are glazed and over-glazed — they probably have between 15 and 20 layers of paint on various parts. I was hoping to achieve the glow that transparent paintings can sometimes accrue through layering.

When I thought I had finished, I took the paintings off to my crit group, and showed them to my various critics and friends, trying to see what “bumped” at people. The biggest canvas, “Morning Fog” needed some tweaks — my crit group was good at seeing problematic areas —¬† as a conventional landscape, it was relatively easy to plan and execute and tweak; the fog gave me a bit of trouble, as did the half-snag, half-pine tree, but fixing those areas wasn’t too hard.

Morning Fog, 6' x 4', oil on canvas, 2013

Morning Fog, 6′ x 4′, oil on canvas, 2013

The smaller canvas (4 x 4 feet) was a different kettle of fish. In fact, there were times I thought I should just paint a bunch of trout over it and be done with the problem. Everyone had opinions about the piece and no two opinions were alike. What one person loved, another hated. The friend who sat on the right raved about the top, but the friend on the left found it totally baffling. The slate ledges were “wonderful” or, conversely, “simply don’t work.

Going Home, 4' x4', oil on canvas, 2013

Going Home, 4′ x4′, oil on canvas, 2013

In the end, I did what I wanted to do. I think this piece is finished, but perhaps not — I’m still pondering. However, in a few days, we’ll be off to the desert and all thoughts of lush green will flee from my head. So I think I may have to make my final decisions today and tomorrow. If you have any observations, make them quick, so I can include them in the notions I must discard:-) –June

The Figure in the Landscape: Summer 2012

I just completed a 2-week, six-day workshop on the figure in landscape. I have decided that this year I will concentrate on painting figures and faces, so in June, I reviewed portraiture with Jeff Burke at Hipbone studio (see the previous post). And in July,  I took this workshop.

Our schedule was fairly routine: We did a lot of gestural sketching of the models during the early part of the day and then, just before lunch, we began to lay in the primary painting of the day.

By 4:30, we were supposed to have a somewhat finished painting, in my case on an 18 x 24″ Masonite board. The pace of the sketching and painting was fast, purposely so, as our instructor wanted us to work on the whole scene and not get hung up on specifics of the figure.

The first week we painted in Laurelhurst Park, which is lush and green and lively. It’s an important Portland park, designed by a student and colleague of Frederick Olmstead, using his ideas of what urban parks should be. Laurelhurst is on the National Historic Register because it has kept the basic Olmstead design intact. It’s a magical place to paint.

JOU, Summer Workshop 2012 Day1, 18 x 24″, oil on canvas, 2012

Above is the painting from Day 1, not revised thus far.

Not only is Laurelhurst beautiful, but the models were beautiful, and skilled. It isn’t easy to pose out of doors, even when the weather is fine. We always had two models. We chose one of two different scenes, and the models would alternate between them; the artists would paint both models serially, seeing them together only briefly at the beginning of the long poses. A small group of models, four altogether, reappeared in various couplets during the the 6 days of the workshop.

JOU, Workshop Summer 2012 Day 2, 18 x 24, oil on board, 2012

On day 2, after an extended discussion of color, Impressionism and post-Impressionism, I decided to use arbitrary color, specifically blue skin tones. When I finished at 4:30, I rather disliked the blue skins, but later came to think they worked in a peculiar sort of way. Which, come to think of it, is what was said in the final critique.

Day 3 we came back to the park. I felt more and more at home with two models and the pace of the drawing/painting:

JOU, Workshop summer 2012 Day 3, 18 x 24″, oil on board, 2012

This is the only painting from the workshop that I worked further in the studio. The basics are the same, but some of the colors got pushed in one direction or another. And the instructor had told the male model to sit on a stool toward the end of the session. I painted him in, but later took the seated figure back out.

The sessions were held three days of the week, and the second week arrived with threatening weather, so we moved indoors, to a renovated warehouse in NW Portland.

[Here’s a 2006 article about the warehouse and its primary purpose, to house an extensive model train set-up. Since the article was written in 2006, Larry, the owner, has designed and gardened a natural landscape outside the warehouse for the trains to move through. We got to make use of that landscape on Day 6 of the workshop.]

JOU, Workshop Summer 2012 Day 4 (#1), 24 x 18″, oil on Masonite, 2012

JOU, Workshop Summer 2012 Day 4 (#2), 18 x 24″, oil on Masonite, 2012

On Day 4 (see the paintings above) I began the large painting with a very dark toned board. I usually paint some under-color on my boards, but the darkness of my color choice threw me off. At some point I simply couldn’t “see” the painting any more and the instructor suggested I start a new one. I think I worked on #2 for about 15 minutes before I had to quit altogether. Again, neither of these paintings has been retouched — yet. The computer may have lightened #1 more than it appears in real life — that under-tone was a real pain.

On day 5, we continued in the warehouse, as it threatened rain again. The instructor began with an interesting challenge, having us draw a sketchy door and mat at the top of our papers. We then began quick sketches, as he moved the models closer and closer to the group. What that did was to enforce our sense of spatial distancing through size — the closer the models got to us, of course the larger they appeared. The original door and mat served as reference points for our sketches. A very effective way to make a point, albeit exhausting.

JOU, Workshop summer 2012 day 5 (#1), 12 x 16″, oil on Masonite, 2012

JOU, Summer Workshop 2012 Day 5 (#2), 16 x 12″, oil on Masonite, 2012

For the day 5 paintings I decided to use some materials I had worked on earlier in the summer. I had been painting with greens and had a number of boards whose surfaces were basically 57 or so versions of the hue. These were 12 x 16″ boards, smaller than the others I had brought to the workshop.

The night before Day 5, I scraped and sanded the small green boards, muting the greens, and the next day I used them to make studies for what I hoped would be a larger panel with the wild green undertone. I thought this intrusive undertone would force me to integrate the figures and landscape even as they were separated by doors and walls. I was determined to bring the landscape into the warehouse.

It was a disappointing attempt (I’m showing Day 5 works only out of honesty and a need to be complete). The greens were a muddle, distracting me; the rocking chair one of the models sat in seemed to defeat me; the composition got out of hand. In short I felt these two studies went way astray. Because of this I decided against bringing in a larger green-toned board the next day.

JOU, Workshop summer 2012, Day 6, 18 x 24″, oil on canvas, 2012

I think this final work is the painting I’m most fond of, although of course, it needs more work. We were at the warehouse again, but the weather, while cloudy, wasn’t as threatening, so we went outside into the exotic garden beside the warehouse. The scene included landscape and industrial elements — both of which I’m very familiar with. The two models had been with us off and on for the last five sessions, so they were quite familiar, thus easier to paint. And we didn’t do any preliminary sketches, so I was less exhausted when the process began. In short, this is a work I shall revise, with the thought that I can turn it into a successful final product.

To summarize this experience: I had begun hoping to gain more clarity about the figure within the landscape. I finished with no more ideas about the interactions of humans and landscape  than I had when I started. Figure painting is as stylized as figure drawing, or at least it was in this workshop. There was no instructional attempt to find the relationships between the figures and the landscape in the modeling set-up and my feeble attempts were pretty much failures. On the other hand, I gained confidence in my ability to paint the figure, at least in this Impressionistic mode. I played with color in ways I might not have without the workshop. And I may have a painting or two that I like from the process.

The critique session, begun about 2:30 and finishing at 6 or so on that last day, included comments about my work as “surreal” and “innovative”, (although “not really.”) My own critique about the workshop says that I now have a clearer comprehension of where my weaknesses with the figure lie, and, more importantly, that I have not resolved the issue of the figure in landscape. So I have my work cut out for me over the next 9 or 10 months, as I work further with the figure and with the figure in landscape, and continue to play with the landscapes I love. –June

Dateline: Mitchell, Oregon, Sept. 15, Day 10

I am aweary this evening.

But I tromped again today to the back of the outback and did another medium sized painting (18 x 24).¬† I also worked some more on yesterday’s painting from that same spot.

So here is the photo of the space I concentrated on today:

And here’s the 18 x 24″ painting:

JOU, Foliage in the Painted Hills Outback, 18 x 24″, oil on masonite

And here’s draft 2 of yesterday’s attempt:

JOU, The Painted Hills, Juniper and Sage, 24 x 18″, oil on masonite

Today I was startled by my sense of the sensuality of the hills. I arrived relatively early on the site, having hiked through the sagebrush to reach the tree where I left my gear. I sat on my painting stool, contemplating the hills while being immersed in the  dusty sage-and-juniper scents. And I suspect that those moments of sensation were what lingered when I picked up my brush.

Painting the hills here is like painting flesh. I once painted these formations as great lumbering beasts, emerging from the earth. This time they felt to me like slumbering flesh, full of mysterious shadings and crevices made for laying on of hands. It was a delight to work on that feeling, and it’s almost certainly one I can continue to enhance when I get home.

Even though I have four more days to paint, this may be the next-to-last entry of this residency journal. The last will come after I have returned home, have re-worked various paintings, and have photographed them under proper light. I have some¬† more small boards to work on here, on-site, so it’s possible there will be more paintings to come in the next four days.

However, the residencies, even this unofficial one, are exhausting for me. They have a lot of drawbacks — bad internet connections, strange beds, bad food, unfamiliar surrounds, someone else’s kitchen and furniture. Seeking out the best painting spots, dragging the cart, setting up the gear in the wind and sun, painting while thirsty and hot and dusty, and then taking all the gear down and packing it away to drive back home — well, it wears me out.

Of course, the residencies have all the seductive reasons for doing them — new territory to explore and comprehend, new visions for painterly working, new excitement and feelings of being totally alive to place and space, to sun and wind, to sagebrush and rabbitbrush and cactus and mountains ranges and iron oxidation which produce unreproducible color. I can’t speak for other artists, but the residencies, even when the results are not up to my standards, produce more and more thinking about what I’m trying for, where I fail, when and how I sometimes succeed, and what I want to continue with.

At this time, I think I have the material to work further on this unlikely space at home in Portland, thinking about how sensuality of landscape can be rendered through paint and brushstroke, maintaining the sense of the territory and its space, but making it feel like a beloved body, with all its ungainly pieces coming together to exhilarate. I have theories about bodies, too, of course, theories that don’t match the glossy botoxed models of media fame. Bodies and landscapes are better when they aren’t manicured and made to look too regular. The best landscapes, and perhaps the best bodies, are quirky, foolish at times, awkward and aged, not to perfection, but to wear.

So you see, with thoughts like that, it may be better not to maunder on for the next few days here in Mitchell, Oregon, on Piety Hill, just up from the dens of iniquity in Tiger Town down on the flats. Maundering may be better with a fresh mind.

So see you in a while, however long that takes. –June