Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Great Basin Pt. 1

I am aware that landscape painting isn't for everyone.  In a contemporary setting, most viewers probably expect nothing but boredom toward the prospect of a landscape painting that doesn't include at least some small element of human interpretation or presence.  That seems to influence the most constant re-occurring theme across all disciplines of land art too, "Man vs. Nature" or "Man's Interaction with Nature" or "Man's Effect on Nature."  I can't always avoid it myself.  My introduction into landscape painting began with the obligatory images of desert residences and weathered vehicles and to this day still depicts elements of dirt roads and shoveled earth.  As you can see from the photo above, sometimes the human elements creep in without my intention.  And further on that note, beyond the frail fencing pictured above, you are still looking at a photograph that one day may be used as a primary visual source for a painting, a process rooted in interpretation.

Is it a defense mechanism that I find a need to justify my use of photography in landscape painting?  A part of me always feels as though there must be some element of eye rolling when someone turns away from my work.  This leaves me wondering why someone would assume that my dedication to my work would in someway be less genuine.  As though the use of photography was born from laziness as opposed to preference, or even necessity.  The pathetic fallacy is that all of these ideas are rooted in my own baseless assumptions.  Who gives a damn what anyone thinks?  As far as I see it, plein air painting is a constant string of human compromises: time is limited, light is limited, and the weather can be far from permitting.  These are all compromises that effect the working process and, regardless of your own intentions, they may just be detrimental to your own techniques.  Painters know how these compromises will affect their work.  We work with compromises on a daily basis.  Trust our experience.

There is a reason I use photography for my painting.  If I were searching for a more human interpretation I would throw my easel in the car.  If I were aiming for less, I would unbox my projector.  There is also a reason I stop short of photo-realistism.  Red-Green colorblindness led me to photoshop, while a short attention span turned me away from the projector.  These are chosen techniques.  If I had chosen to battle those elements of myself then I would have chosen to add more human elements into my paintings.  It is a sales pitch assumption that those human elements always make for better work.  I have drawn a line into my working process that I find necessary for my goals and I make all of my decision to walk that line to the best of my ability.

If I stick to my guns I can make you a new landscape painting.  One that does not depend on blatant interpretation.  One that does not use familiar architecture, trees, and land formations.  You know what a barn looks like.  You know what thick, pasty clouds painted with a palette knife you look like.  You know what an old truck looks like.  You know what a patch of trees on the horizon looks like.  You know how the river winds through the three overlapping hills, which become bluer with each step of distance.  You know what boats look like.  Or the sunset shining through the waves.  You know how the long, one point perspective shot looks too.  It may even still speak to you.

This is far from new territory.  Though I still managed to not only pitted myself against the nature of landscape painting, but the demands of contemporary "high-end" painting as well.  Though I do not feel that I should have to add any abrasively interpretive elements to make a good landscape, it is against ones own nature to remove man made objects from an environment.  I still find myself halfway through a painting wondering why it needed to contain a dirt road in the first place.

You will never see me paint Southern Utah either.  It may be an astounding environment, but you already know that fact. My paintings are currently focused around Utah's northwest region, around the west desert.  From there they will most likely migrate into Nevada and deeper into the heart of the Great Basin.  These photos were all taken in central and southern Nevada.  These photos were taken off the side of the highway.  They are regions where an average driver wonders if they will make it to Reno without falling asleep behind the wheel.  Regions that most would prefer to occupy their minds thinking about which casino would have the best odds. Or which club in Vegas will get them laid.  Who gives a damn if the mountains next to you were formed from the Earth ripping apart millions of years ago?  Who cares if those moutains are currently rolling onto their sides?  Who cares if where you are currently driving used to be a thousand feet under water?

If you grew up in the west you are a part of this history.  Whether you realize it or not you are involved.  This land pushes people over the edge.  They have no idea how to interpret it.  They have no idea how to use it.  Should you shovel the earth for silver or build a hotel that promises gold?  Is it the perfect land for dropping a bomb?  Will aliens visit you?  Is there a body buried somewhere out there?  Where did the showdown take place?  Can you see this history when you only see the land?  Why don't you pull over and find out?  This is the boring American West in all of its glory and it's had a hold on you long before you found the casino.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Get There 2.2 (Painting the Sky Pt. 1)

I was nervous about starting this painting.  When you start working on this scale it is very easy for the cross bracing and stretcher bars to show through the brush work on the front of the canvas.  You may have run into this problem before.  You may have found yourself intensely digging the brush into the paint only to end up making a giant cross in the middle of your canvas.  I really didn't want to deal with that problem.  I decided to apply water to the back of the canvas to tighten it up for the preliminary layers of the painting.  I usually use a heavy duty canvas (probably Blick's #10) but this time my canvas is a little thinner (probably Blick's #12), which I am actually finding the elasticity nice in keeping the canvas tight.  For safety sake, though, it never hurts to get as heavy duty a canvas as you can (except for your knuckles because you are going to shred the tops of your fingers when stretching a canvas this large).  Also, seriously, grow up and buy unprimed canvas and gesso it yourself.  Primed canvas is embarrassing and it's always papery, cheap, shit.  Anyways, I just hope my canvas is good and should be fine.

Once I evenly dampened the back of the canvas I brushed the water into the canvas fibers so it wouldn't just bead and drip down to the bottom stretchers.  Though it has been thoroughly gessoed I assume it can't possibly be good to have a puddle of water sitting at the bottom (metal) stretcher bar.

This is all I used to paint the sky:

Titanium White
Cerulean Blue
Ultramarine Blue
Ivory Black

Most of the time I prefer Mars Black over Ivory Black.  Mars is a more opaque, heavier paint, making smooth blends much easier.  Regardless, I decided in this case to use Ivory.  It is darker, cooler, and might look better blending into the ultramarine.  In future paintings I have planned I will probably mix little variations into the blue to take out a little of the intensity and add bits of pollution to the horizon.  Also, it is important to note that I do not mix any mediums into the paint for this step.  I like having the paint be as thick and chromatic as possible.  Wax mediums may thicken the paint but it would wash out the chroma and any linseed or stand oil would thin the paint and make it too transparent, leaving streaks of visible brushwork.  The biggest struggle you are going to face in this step is not accidentally pulling lines of the naturally thinner black and blue paints into the fragile but thicker white.  You will see this happen further along this process.

Even though the photo above depicts that I have already used all of these brushes I decided to show it preemptively to simply illustrate which brushes I used to paint the sky.  I am hoping this makes things a little less confusing later.  It is important in this step to have a couple different Filbert* brushes.  Once the straight black paint touches one of them you can no longer use it to paint the lower portion of the sky without it being cleaned.  I have ruined a number of skies by not completely cleaning the Turpenoid (turpentine, mineral spirits, etc) out of the brush before taking it back to the canvas.  This is why I started using more than one.  One can blend the dark paint, one can blend the light.

I started the painting by laying the white out with a Filbert.  Though the brushwork is highly visible I use the small brush to spread the paint evenly among the surface.  If I had used my largest brush at this step I would have spent too much time trying to spread the paint out from the first spot where I touched the brush to the canvas.  This would have eventually forced me to apply more and more pressure to the canvas, which in turn would have probably cause me to apply too much pressure, which would rub the canvas against the cross bracing below and accidentally cause it to show through the canvas.

I applied the white from below the horizon line of the image all the way to the near top of the canvas.  I only left a little space near the top so I didn't lose the intensity of the black and ultramarine by accidentally mixing in too much white.  From this point I applied the black on the top corners, then the ultramarine from the black to the edge of the white.  I then applied the cerulean on top of the edge of the ultramarine and the white.  At this point it is good to start blending with the Filbert brush specifically on the edges where two different colors are touching.  I usually blend perpendicular to where the colors touch, then criss cross over it, then parallel with it.  Be sure, in the beginning, to work each line of touching colors individually.

After the paint had begun to even out I pulled out a large brush like the one pictured above to start blending from top to bottom (perpendicular to the color lines).  I had never used this Purdy brush before.  I bought it at Home Depot.

Initially, I didn't care much for this brush.  It moved pretty smoothly but the hard, square edges made it hard to blend smoothly.  This brush was probably best for this point of the blending process, but would need to be replaced by a denser, thicker, natural fiber brush to really smooth out the blend.

Here were some of the marks that the Purdy brush left on the canvas.  If the bristles were denser and the brush a little thicker than these lines wouldn't have shown in the blend.  This problem isn't specific to just the brush, though.  The ultramarine and black are thin paints.  They move across the canvas very easily.  You will notice when doing this blend that the cerulean will not give you too much trouble, while the ultramarine will drive you crazy.  Paints having different consistencies and properties will also often be one of the causes of oil paint cracking over over time, as it settles.  Ever notice how the black in old paintings cracks more than the other colors?  This may be a problem specific to store bought paint and it may also vary between different types of black, I really have no idea.

One of the problems with a new brush is that the unstable bristles fall out while you're painting.  Turpenoid (again: mineral spirits, Turpentine, etc) can be hell on brushes (especially some types of synthetic bristles) and you will probably find yourself picking little bristles out of the paint as you go.  You can see above that I had to go through this as well.  Bristles breaking into the paint usually is the primary cause of me yelling obscenities at my painting.  The bristles are distracting, they mess up the blends, and they have forced me to repaint large areas of my skies on previous paintings.  It never hurts to have a pair of tweezers in the studio.  I am not sure if there are any good techniques to removing the initial weak bristles**.  Every brush has a window in the middle of its life span when its bristles are pretty secure.

This brush is in that window.  It's dense with natural fibers, and most importantly, the perfect mix of soft and firm.  I am not entirely sure how to describe it but after you use a brush a bit it gets to that point where the bristle tips are soft but rest of them are still firm and can spread the paint.  You will know when your brush gets there.  When I used the brush pictured above I was able to smooth out those awkward marks that the Purdy brush left.  The other benefit of natural over synthetic bristles is that the natural ones don't stick together from moisture.  Synthetic may be nice for making a scratchy palette knife effect, but it certainly would not have helped me at this stage.

Here is a problem that you will run into regardless of what brush you use.  After switching brushes I had managed to smooth the blend without too many hitches.  Inevitably, if you are primarily starting your long, vertical brush strokes from the top, dark end of the sky and moving into the white, you will pull the paint off of the edges of the canvas and leave the thicker light paint in its place.  This can obviously be fixed by brushing from the white into the dark.  You have to be careful at this point.  Use a second brush that does not have dark paint on it.  If you forget and use the same brush you will accidentally brush a spattering of hair-thin dark lines on the white.  You can smooth this out but if you keep juggling the dark and light paint back and forth you will eventually move too much darker blue toward the horizon.

That is exactly what had happened to my painting.  Though it is a little hard to tell from this photo, too much blue paint had moved toward the horizon.  It wasn't too much of a problem for this image since the horizon on the photo I am working from was surprisingly darker than usual.  In many cases, if you look at the horizon on a sunny clear day in the desert it will be closer to white than you think.  Regardless, I still had to take action with this painting.

I used my plastic*** drywall knife to remove some of the excess paint near the horizon line.  Obviously this left a mess of a texture and sketchy blending that I had to smooth out all over again but by this point most of everything had started to even out so taking the time for this recovery is much easier than dealing with a overly dark blend.  I have made too many paintings in the past where I didn't realize until I was about half way finished that the horizon was too dark, a live-with-it/start-over situation.  One last thing about painting the sky that I want to mention now in case I forget in the next Get There post is that I like to end each sky step with vertical brush strokes.  This way light won't reflect off of the fine brush marks and make your painting glare.  I usually gradually make my vertical strokes as I slowly move across the canvas, slightly overlapping one bottom-to-top stroke at a time.  Much like vacuuming a rug.

It was approaching the end of my day at the studio when I realized that I had been slowly ruining another pair of jeans.  This problem could have been fixed with an apron or less stupidity.  I took it as a sign that I should have been doing all of this on the wall.

I had then put three screws in the wall and hung my painting.  I really should have had the painting hanging this way since I finished gessoing.  Though this may seem obvious, hang the painting upside down.  This way you won't have to use a ladder (duh) and keeping the long, vertical brushwork a little low also enhances your control of the brush.  I always prefer working vertically over horizontally (as I was on the saw horses, or as you would at an art table) because there is less of a chance that your viewing angle will distort your painting (probably another "duh").

At this point, I had applied the first layer of the sky.  I needed to now let it dry completely to do the same process over again.  I couple rounds of this and the painting should really pop.  Also, painting a preliminary sky layer leaves less of a chance of little raw parts of the gesso layer to show through and offset the value and depth of the sky.  One more bit of advice: That metal grating inside my can of Turpenoid is a flower box/rain gutter mesh I found at Home Depot.  It came in 4 ft tall (about 1 ft wide) strips.  Cut and bend some of it into your Turpenoid can and it will help your clean your brushes better.

*Filbert brushes are crazy expensive.  Dick Blick has a "Giant" natural bristle brush for relatively cheap.  I remember trying to find the largest one I could.  It ended up being a size 30, hog hair Da Vinci for $130.  That price ended that journey.  I instead went with the naturaly bristle "Giant" Blick brand because it was $15.  It wasn't as nice but it worked.  It also enabled me to buy the nice big brush in the can pictured above.  I wanted to find a link to it but I don't know if the brush type is considered "Bright" or "Flat", so I can't find it online.  Whatever, it is a nice naturaly hair version of a brush you paint a house with, whatever the hell that is called.

**Here is a helpful technique for removing the excess fuzz off of a paint roller:  If you ever found yourself screaming at a wall you were rolling because there is a speckling of dust bits in your paint, then you are in luck.  First of all, only buy paint rollers that are white.  Those cheap brownish/yellowy shitty ones are no good.  Don't be a bargain hunter when it comes to paint rolls.  Before using the roll tightly wrap it with the sticky side of your painters tape.  Do this around the whole roll (think like a barbershop pole).  When you peel the tape off a bunch of the roller dust will be stuck to it.  Do this a couple of times before using the roll.  Ryan Coffey showed me this trick. It may have been common knowledge, but I really had no idea.

***Don't use metal because you will probably just rip the canvas and then get pissed off at me!  You may even want to consider dulling the corners of your plastic drywall knife just to be safe when doing something like this.