The Pleasure in Painting Slowly

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Some Things Can't Stay the Same.jpg

This may make little sense to folks who have seen me hammer out a painting in 2 hours tops, but I've had the recent pleasure of sitting down to paint at a leisurely, meticulous, focused pace, and its been lovely.  For me, that means paintings that take 5 or 6 or 7 hours, including the sketch.  Of course, I've painted this way before, but it'd been a while.  It's a different way of painting, with a different pleasure and a different goal.  Just as painting with brevity is about the process and the loose painterly results that come from it, painting slowly is also (to me) very much about the process, where the meditative, focused attention to detail leads to a measured final result that has a different kind of clarity to it. 

My parents recently sold their house.  This is where I grew up.  It's been in the family since the Gold Rush- by California standards, that's a very long time.  Some things you know are coming- death, taxes, seasons-  but, oddly, there are just certain things you think are going to be around forever.  This was one of them to me, and it's been a difficult transition.  In a swamp of emotions, I sat down and just began to paint.  Slowly and meticulously, lovingly and painstakingly, I created the first image- this window up above.  For a time, as a child this was my room. After it was done, I drove back up to the foothills and took more photos, doing all the drawings on site and making color notes as I compared my photos to reality.  Last week I made a second and then a third painting.  I'm doing more still, that I'll probably share in time.  I may have the opportunity to go back once more.

It's been a quiet, healing process.  Of course, I'm still building compositions, and thinking about values and hues and focal points, but I'm also just paying attention to details.  There's a kind of alchemy that can happen- using details to rebuild memories that sink into and then echo out of the paper.  Each painting is an homage to a much loved space, one delicate forgotten cobweb or neglected chip of paint at a time.  Painting slowly has allowed that to happen.  It's a great pleasure and a privilege to have the ability now to make these paintings when I needed to.  It's also been a simple, uncomplicated pleasure to paint something that has real personal value to me, and isn't simply an interesting image.  It's made me think some about what it is I choose to paint in general, and why I paint, and what it is I might like my paintings to say- about myself and my loved ones and the world around me. 

Having said that, let's dive into the paintings...


Some Things Can't Stay the Same-

For this painting, like all of them, I drew it freehand.  I thought about using a ruler, particularly since it’s architectural, but the goal of these paintings wasn’t fidelity to straight lines.  The goal was to have a personal experience painting them, and to have the final product reflect that experience.  So I drew my straight lines as best I could, but really focused on simply letting my gently wobbly lines be “perfectly wobbly”. 

For this one, I started painting by making a grisaille with Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna.  This is a technique best known for use with oils.  The idea is to do all your black and white work, all your value work, and then you glaze your color on top.  This worked particularly well because the color shapes here are simple.  Also, this image, to me, is really about the bold value contrasts of the cast shadows on the closed drape, with the repeated white lines of the panes dividing those shadows.  This seemed like a good subject to try a grisaille on.

It's hard to see from the comparison photos, but on the right there's actually a creamy white wash on the siding, while the earlier black and white glazes for the windows and shadows have been left stark and white.

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Living In The Present-

I knew this corner of the barn well.  We used to have a cow when I was young, Maybell was here name, and this is where we would lead her to get milked. The shelves weren't there at the time.  ;)

As with the window, I drew it free hand.  This sketch was done on site. I shifted a few things around (such as making the two jugs touch to form a terminus for the eye at the focal point, but in general I ffocused on fidelity to the experience of being there, the warm reflected light, and getting that dusty yellow-brown veneer on things as much as I could.


Here you can see the first warm washes I did, and the beginning of some of the darker line work.  The whole painting is done almost entirely with Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue.  Just a bit of red added in for the faux cherry of the shelf and the labels on the jugs, and some Cad Orange to make the Burnt Sienna punchy in the warmer light.  As I've been doing, the back of the paper was made wet and stuck to the backing through water tension.  When I start the front is totally dry, but the paper is cool to the touch and gently full of water inside.  This allows for complicated washes to be applied with greater ease.  The washes are done with mops, but the line work is patiently done almost entirely with smaller synthetics (1/8" to 1/4" round).


Bit by bit, more and more washes go in, making the left be in a bit of shadow, while the right becomes progressively comparatively warmer and hit by indirect light.  Perhaps I do 5 or 6 or 7 washes in total.  The distressed wood, such as the area above the jugs, slowly comes to life as I cut edges and build texture.  There's a lot of dry brush work, but there's actually a lot of wet into wet work in the washes too, as I create gradations.  Note the subtle shift on the white post, as it goes from warm on the left, to a pale blue on the right, and the movement from hard to soft edges on the jugs.


Again and again, I drop darker bits into smaller and smaller areas.  I'm definitely not afraid get get to black in some areas.  Also, towards the end, all the funny little bits that make a space come to life start to go in.  That's when I know I'm in the last hour or so.  Cobwebs, of course, go in only at that point, but also yellow dust on the top of the jugs.  Little white flecks that must have been mummified bugs?  LOL.  Details on the lids and rims of the jars, etc.  Some go in to answer a desire for fidelity.  Others go in for compositional reasons, to open up too dark areas, or to lead the eye.  Some just feel right.



From the Inside Out-

My personal favorite of the three, but everyone's entitled to their opinion.  ;P  I love the topsy turvy boards that are all tilted in the same direction, like the fingers of a waving hand, and the water damage on the wood.  The barn is, honestly, pretty junky, and yet it feels like it's been there forever, and that it will continue to be so long after we're gone. Of course, that's a sweet kind of lie, but it feels true- a contradiction I try to embed in the painting.

I drew this on site, standing in the barn, with my gatorboard and paper propped on what I think was an old lamp.  First, it's worth saying that the photo doesn't do justice to the warm light and pleasing clutter of the space.  As such, the photo is always just a reference.  Photos are great at recording the arrangement of shapes, but don't do such a good job at recording high contrast values, nor at revealing subtleties of complimentary hues.  After I took the photo, I stood in the barn and compared it to reality, and spent the time noting what it recorded well and what it was misreporting. When it came time to paint, I relied on memory and emotion for many color and lighting aspects of the image, much more than I did on the photo itself.  The photo is, of course, also a handy too, and wonderful at revealing little discard bits of things, scratches and shadows and such.  Great as a supplement for this kind of slow painting.


As with the previous painting, almost all of this is done with Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue.  Perhaps a bit of Cad Orange or Cobalt Blue early on,  and some Viridan here and there later on, but absolutely no Black.  I started with a warm orange wash, preserving my whites along that upper edge and in the cracks between the planks of wood, dropping my blues in where needed and letting my edges dissolve.  I was very interested in the contrast of cool and warm hues, particularly for my focal point- the collection of objects on the shelf, hit by light.  From there, I began dropping in darker values, cutting my edges.  Then dropping in my first set of dark line work and deepening my shadows.  The shapes start to come into view, but this was half way at most.


Sadly, I'm missing the other steps, but if you look closely, or open the image up in another window, you'll see details.  I scrumble in textural darks alot in these sorts of images, as well as reserve bits of line work for the end.  As I did a few warmer washes up top (above the shelf and on the ceiling), and cooler, darker washes down below, some of the line work was softened, and needed to be gently reinvigorated here and there.  And yet, also, the softening of some of the edges is left alone, which can help integrate shapes and values.  Of course, cobwebs and such go in almost at the end- although these too I also did a wash over, to soften and integrate them. 

Of utmost important all the time, however, is a) keeping the light where I've got it, and b) pushing these deep (almost black, but not quite) darks along the shelf, where the glass lamp cover and photo albums and watering can dissolve into and fuse to the recesses.  It's also worth noting various choices made to the composition too- to leave the watering can paler and cooler than in reality (for a stronger contrast), to make the area below the shelf darker and cooler so it would recede, and to add cobwebs as I saw fit, to lead your eye this way and that, linking shapes and locations together.

This one I can almost smell.  I hope you get to paint things you care about too.

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