Short Day with Evaluation: Day 24, Nov. 24, 2009

I got up slowly and moved slowly and sipped my coffee slowly, and did desultory emails but finally, slowly, went off to the studio about 10:30 AM.

I thought, since it was already too late to do anything serious, that I would try setting up the internet connection at the Red Barn. Jer and I had thought we’d use it for communicating (cell phones don’t work out there) but it seemed like too much bother to set up before this. And it was just as well, since I couldn’t get it to work anyway. “Airport” and Microsoft don’t like to connect. I didn’t work very hard at my attempts, mostly just drank my tea and thought about Life, Love, and the pursuit of nothing:

At some point, however, I realized that I had a photo of a place I had done a painting study from and the painting needed work. So I hauled out my brushes and used the computer to give me information that my memory lacked.

This is the Bare Mountains from near the Airport:

The Bare Mountains from Near the Beatty Airport, 16 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2009

These mountains have a striking uplift pattern as they progress south, but near Beatty, as they come to an end, they get a bit jumbled. This is the jumbled end.

Then, having my paintbrush in hand, I meandered over to the linen panels to see what I could see. I put a bit of paint here, and there, and then over here, and then there again. And when I stopped dabbing and scratching, I saw that I had created the basic pattern. This may be it.

I haven’t had any critical eyes approach it yet, and I’m still too close to know if it’s done, but right now, I’m thinking I’m close to the finish line on the linen. The last piece fell into place when I found that I was making “V” and upside-down “V” shapes — diagonals that crossed the panels, pulling them together and giving them some movement. I maintained the quirks of light, but they are downplayed. The forms seem Ok, and the colors move, which is about all one can ask of them. I may need to push more paint around — I can’t tell right now. But this is the badly lit version of the seven panels as I left them tonight:

The Amargosa Desert, panels 1,2, and 3, about 12′ x 5′, oil on linen, 2009

The Amargosa Desert, panels 3, 4, and 5, about 12′ x 5′, oil on linen, 2009

The Amargosa Desert, panels 5, 6, and 7, about 12′ x 5′, oil on linen, 2009

The colors are really screwed up in these photos, so they don’t match up. The last set of panels is darker and brighter, a combo that I couldn’t photoshop with any success. The first set of panels is brighter and more saturated, but again, nothing I did brought about a desired result. But the “v” shapes seem to me to be able to be read, in spite of the size of the panels. The whole is balanced and unified. I think there’s enough variety, although that may depend on your definition of variety; the desert is like that….

And so, I stopped work on the panels, touched up another painting, washed out my brushes, and started a semi-abstract of a salt flat, which are about as abstract as one can get and still do landscape. It will require overpainting once it’s dry, so it was good to get the first layer down.

Tomorrow is supposed to be pleasant weatherwise, and I need to get away from the desert (and those linen panels), so I think I’ll paint in town a bit. And go to the Beatty Merc to stock up for Thanksgiving. We are having guests — who are bringing most of the food. What better guests can there be than that?

Reporting from Goldwell House, in Beatty, Nevada, two days before turkey-day. Barbecued, no less. We don’t do barbecue for Thanksgiving in Portland, so it will be a rare treat.

Another Direction: Day 23, Nov. 23, 2009

Where do I start? One day is much like another, only different, and each day seems to bring new revelations. At least each does when I’m paying attention.

This morning, I worked over that central panel, again. I realized that, as it was painted, it looked as if a gap existed between the mountains — where none in reality exists. That’s because I was painting those north facing mountains that are so hard to see. They basically got slopped into some sort of shape, but not really observed.

So, I got to do my dance from wall to door to wall to door, dripping paint as I sallied forth, again and again and again. In the end (about noon) I was satisfied at last that what I’ve been calling The Long Slope, which never shows its definition, was about as good as it would get. I had properly closed the gap in the center panel, which shouldn’t have been there to begin with.

Linen Panel #4, November 23, 2009

But more important than dealing with the mountains was another insight crept slowly but surely into my consciousness as the morning progressed.

Late yesterday Jer and I drove west on a gravel road that ultimately turned north. We were driving along the Bullfrog Hills, which jumble themselves crossways between the big ranges, Bare Mountain and the Grapevine Range.  These are the hills that cuddle Rhyolite, the ghost town up the road, and one of which is directly behind the Red Barn studio. They continue, in a kind of informal, helter-skelter way until they  bump into the Grapevine mountains, the range that runs pretty much north and south along  Death Valley.

I was tired and not paying much attention to the scenery, when Jer stopped to take a photo. As I sat looking out the front window of the car, I suddenly realized I was seeing what was, for me, totally new and unknown territory, the kind of thing that can give a tired mind a bit of frisson, a little anxiety about being way out beyond the known. I got out of the car then and looked back down the road we had traveled for the last half hour. There was the whole of the Amargosa Valley, looking the same as ever, just like it did when I stood in open doors of the Barn. Oh there were some differences I could count up, but really, after going far west and far north, we were still in the Amargosa Desert.

Which brings me to my revelation. While the Amargosa Desert and the Amargosa Valley converge down around Beatty, the Amargosa Desert goes north and west, staying between the Bare Mountains and the Grapevines until it bumps into the Bullfrog hills. The Amargosa Valley, however, with its trickle of a river, has come directly from the north through the gap between the Bullfrogs and Bare Mountains. It has its origins in Oasis Valley, coming out the Timber Range, farther east than the Bare Mountains.

The desert is a much bigger, more open, vaster space than the valley. The far right panels of mountains that I had been painting were still very much a part of the desert that is seen in the first, far left panel; the valley only exists in the first two panels.

What this did to my head — and hence to the painting — was make me realize that I had to pull that desert sense clear across all the panels — not just allow the mountains to draw nearer but to continue the desert fully into the space. The Red Barn does not exist at the head of the Amargosa Desert, although it’s close to the head of the Amargosa Valley.

So, with this insight becoming more and more clear to me, I recognized how I could deal with another problem that had been bugging me. The panel (#2) with the gap in the mountains where the Amargosa River goes through them¬† had been painted early and was a pretty good panel. Too good, in fact. Its brightness drew the eye in ways that I didn’t want but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about. I didn’t know what I would do with that panel if it didn’t go so glowingly into the distance:

This is Linen panel #2, November 20, 2009

And here’s the change that I made to it:

Linen Panel #2 November 23, 2009

What I want is for the desert to go west, not south. So here’s something of what I did with the panels to the west of #2:

Panels 2, 3, 4, and 5, November 23, 2009

Another view:

Panels 2, 3, and 4, November 23, 2009

My hope is to push the color west (right) instead of having it pull the eye totally into the center of panel 2. That will (I say, crossing my fingers) pull the viewer’s eye across the panels rather than stopping with panel 2. Moreover, the flatness of the center panel (more mottled than yesterday but still without much depth) makes sense as a flat desert “void,” not trending much of anywhere. Just there. The color will continue on, but the width of panel 4 flattens the space.

Linen Panel #4 November 23, 2009

I’m not sure this is making any sense to anyone but myself. But recognizing the difference between the vastness of the desert and the small part of it that makes up the valley made me see the space that I was painting differently. Driving along the Bullfrog Hills, into territory that looked totally unlike any I had seen, and then looking back at the absolutely familiar space of my quotidian told me that I had been painting as if I were the center of the universe. Now I’ve know, viscerally, that the universe of the Amargosa Desert goes far beyond me and my eyesight. So should my painting give, at least hints, that there’s more.

And of course, More Must Be Done. Reporting from Goldwell House, Beatty, Nevada.

And a postscript:¬† to be fair to my own inaccurate perception, I grew up in the Susquehanna Valley beside the Susquehanna River, and I now live in the Willamette Valley, 14 blocks or so from the Willamette River. These Valleys are distinct entities, carved, in part, by their rivers. The Amargosa Desert was created by the earth pulling the continent apart; the water that drifts down part of it just happened to find a low spot and sink there, temporarily. It reappears at the south end of the valley, makes a sharp turn north, and sinks, permanently, into Death Valley. Unoriented space, that’s what I calls it.

Working the Center: Day 22, Nov 22, 2009

A shortish day today. Lots of visitors, including old friends Fred and Betty, from last February, when they kept an eye on me from  Rhyolite, where they were caretakers. It was good to see them again; we spent a  couple hours just catching up. It was Fred and Betty with whom we traveled down Titus Canyon in March, a memorable trip.

But I did do some work: here are the tools of the day — palette knife and ancient brush.

I discovered with canvas that I could smear paint with the palette knife — very gooey paint, not meant to stand in nice ridges and icing-like curves, but just to slightly randomly lay down a streak of paint:

This streak then got brushed with the ancient tatted brush which no longer can hold paint — hence all it does is brush out what’s there.

Using the palette knife and old brush gives a very different look to the paint layer than brushing it on conventionally or laying it on so it dripped, as I did yesterday. The variety in layered looks enhances the variations that I hope will keep people looking further.

What I didn’t say yesterday, in that description of the frantic ten minutes trying to capture the¬† mountain forms, was that I spent most of the day working the center panel, and when I finished it was covered, layered, thickly saturated with a very light mottled pinkish beige. Jer’s honest opinion, pulled out of him reluctantly, was also mine, although I was hoping he’d contradict it. It was too much, too light, too out of character, too, too, too excessive.

So here’s yesterday’s center panel, followed by today’s. More Must Be Done:

Center Panel, November 21.

Center Panel, Nov 22.

It’s hard to evaluate these panels separately, although my fond hope is that each will stand on its own in the end. But to see how the center one looked with its companion on either side yesterday and today, here are a couple of photos.

Panels 3, 4, and 5, Nov. 21

Panels 3, 4, and 5, Nov 22

Granting the difference in lighting conditions (depends on where the sun is at any given photo opp), I am definitely happier with November 22.  Seen with the other four panels, the toning down of the center was essential, and it will probably get more.

I wrote down what I hoped for in this six week painting excursion. 1. That the whole would fit together harmonously — that the panels would form a unity; 2. That each panel would make a statement by itself, would be a painting that could stand on its own; and 3. that the panels would balance out, that none would push the others out of sight or diminish itself into nothingness.

I have (had?) other goals — that it would take more than a single 30 second look to get through this scene and that the casual observer would be tempted to walk along the panels and look at them more closely; that I could manage quirky light so that the close observer would understand it but the casual observer wouldn’t be daunted by the quirks; and that it wouldn’t be so boringly conventional as to give the attentive art observer the yawns.

The only thing I think I have at the moment for sure is balance —¬† the seven panels feel precisely the right weight to me. I hope that feeling continues. Some of the panels are pretty good paintings; some are not. The whole is definitely not achieved yet.

As for how others will react, well, all I can do is my best and then let the viewers decide, individually, as they take a look. The reaction thus far has been mixed, but then, the paintings thus far have been mixed.

Tomorrow is Monday and I will begin again.

Reporting from the Goldwell House in Beatty, Nevada, where the Sutter’s Home wine is just fine after a day of painting and socializing.