Paint, scrape, and paint again


Third day’s painting

I got an early start on this day’s work.  The  morning light in my studio  is congenial to this piece, and so I managed about three hours of painting.

Keeping the water moving is an ideal that I always try to realize.  In every way I know how, I want a sense of life, to avoid that ice-sculpture look of “frozen” waves, and I think it’s a design problem and a seeing problem as well as a knowledge problem.  It’s one of the reasons I’ve avoided the use of photography  in my paintings.  The wonderful stories of painters like Frederick Waugh and Charles Woodbury,  who would take themselves out in storms or lash themselves to the decks of ships, all that crazy stuff, to indelibly impress the movements of the ocean into their minds, is pretty inspiring.

I’ve got a good handle on where I’m going in the painting, and I think that it’s expressing some of what I’m hoping to convey.  As I get more involved with the various sections, I’m keeping  that eliptical movement in mind, and I’ll need to  practice restraint  where I might be tempted to overstate and hang the eye up.  Paint, scrape, and paint again.

Building the painting


Getting into the heart of this now, this is the result of the second day’s work.  I’m  now building carefully, in the sense of not wanting to lose my initial idea of what this is ultimately about… a statement of wonder.   I’d like everything to add to that idea, and am willing to eliminate anything that I find detracting from it.

Working from sketches and memory like this is a real test…and a delight.  At one of my breaks, I snapped this photo of my palette .  I’m always a bit amazed at what beautiful harmony naturally develops on this work surface from simply trying to get at some of  the truth of nature’s color.


As a note to people new at painting, I try to be a clean worker.  That doesn’t mean fussy. Good painterly habits  include using a fresh brush, (I went through at least  fifteen today), wiping the work surface of the palette down every few hours, using  freshly laid out  pigments, and eliminating unnecessary additives to the paint.

Show me the child at five…

DSC_0007Oil lay-in, 28 x 32 ” oil on linen

Well, it’s nice to get this stage up and running….there’s a circular movement and a pyramidal structure to this painting that is more evident now. By the way, I’m working on a Belgian linen with an oil priming that I did myself, something I returned to doing a couple years ago.  I enjoy creating and working on these surfaces very much.

I also feel I’m finding a good sense of  how I want this painting to come to life.

For this stage,  I establish the overall placement and tones, and the location of my lightest light and darkest dark.  Those represent the extreme ends of the value range, and every other value is going to  fall in between those two poles. And I bring that  light down in value from pure white;  it’s not a pure white, but colored and toned down a step or two.  That’s important, because I don’t want a screeching falsetto at the top of the value range, but something deeper and richer that merely appears white-like.  It determines the tonal key of the painting.

I also am working so that there is the sense of looking up slightly, maybe almost subconsciously.  I’m eliminating the bit of  horizon that was showing to the left in the sketches, which destabilizes the overall effect, making things feel a little more energetic.

I use my largest hog-bristle brushes, ones  that you can really  cover some ground with. I always push myself to work with the biggest brushes I can for the area I’m working on. I grip the brush lightly in my palm at the end of  the handle, like an orchestra conductor would hold a baton, making use of the full length of the brush, and working somewhat at at arms length, so I’m back away were I can see big pieces. The paint is thinned with Gamsol, just enough to give it a touch of a glide on the surface, and I try to complete the lay -in suggestively and energetically.

(If you ever have the opportunity, study the unfinished paintings that museums occasionally have out.  They are gold.  A favorite example, at the Met in New York, is the large and incomplete Greuze mythological painting “Aegina Visited by Jupiter”, which in many areas reveals  the initial lay-in stage. It’s a surprising opportunity to see how a superbly trained painter developed his work. Many other museums have studies and other partially finished works that for a painter are treasures.)

I find that the more I can keep the painting fresh and moving forward in the early  stages, ” sustaining it’s adolescence” for lack of a better term, the richer the painting and the less finicky the final work becomes.  I’ll want more of the sort of energy I see now, in this first stage,  to remain through to the end.  That requires awareness.  Awareness is not painting thoughtlessly, when you are tired, and  means putting the brush down and getting back from the work.

I’m stepping away from the painting often, back eight feet or so. I also turn the piece upside-down while working, so that I can keep the abstract patterns in mind,  separated from the content. A mirror serves the same purpose, and it’s really important for me to take the time to use those tools often.

Didn’t  the Jesuits have a saying, “Show us the child at five, and we’ll show you the man at 25”, or something to that effect?  That sums up how I think of this stage of the painting.  Anything that I won’t care for later  in this painting is probably already rearing it’s ugly head now, and so I’m keeping alert.  One thing  I hadn’t noticed  until I worked on the canvas upside down was how critical the  element in the lower left hand corner really was to the balance of the painting.  I need to pay more attention to it, but in a simple way because I definitely don’t want the eye to get hung up there.

Final Study


Final Study, untitled,  oil on masonite panel, 8 x 10″

This morning, I finished the studio version of the final study in a few hours.

The point of this step is to take what I’ve seen, all the observations, and begin shaping it into a painting, the best of everything.

It’s a real joy to work indoors with just my memories and impressions, away from the subject.  The craziness of the battle  becomes a bit more contemplative.  Now I’m getting at the painting as I want it to read to the viewer, as it might appear from across a room when first glimpsed.

As I worked, I asked myself  these questions  (my  responses are provided in italics):

What is this painting going to be about?  What drew me in?  What emotional response?

(For the moment, awe, powerful energy and beauty associated with strength.)

What can I do to bring that out that while maintaining the spirit of the place?

(simplify and create order.)


(Be clear about dominant and secondary points of interest,  find an overall structure. Looks like a pyramid could work. Find a rhythm that I can repeat. Eliminate clutter and  details. Capture the true color and simplify it…may require another visit.  The green in the foreground wave, especially, may set the tone for the whole piece. Make it the dominant color, but a hair warmer. Give air around the masses, push the darks in the foreground, and their colors. Palette knife scraping in the shadows?  Fantin LaTour sketches come to mind.)

A comparison with the earlier plein-air sketch I’ve posted will show how some of these things are working themselves out.

Something’s Burning II


Oil Sketch, 12 x 16 “

This is the first oil sketch for the painting based on my last post.

Climbing down to my location, I found the effect, predictably, not quite as powerful as the previous visit, but no matter.  The basics were there. From this, I’m able to start seeing  the overall design,  and start making choices about where I want this to go.

The working part was a blast; I got wet of course,  and enjoyed every second of trying to make this sketch, where everything is changing.  Imagine looking inside a washing machine and painting it, and you’ll get the idea.

However, this sort of sketch is often a bit of a disappointment when you view it in a more  reasoned  environment, far from the battlefield where it was painted. Whatever was in your head seems hardly as dramatic, hardly as evocative, when you are at this stage, and  usually design changes are necessary to bring it closer to your vision.

But the honeymoon isn’t over yet.

Ideally I’ll return and push this a bit farther.  The color and some crisp points are hard to get in the first go-around, where chaos reigns supreme. After that, I’ll possibly let go of it, turn it to the wall,  and let it simmer on the back burner while I work on something else.  I prefer that sometimes, because I want to clarify what I’m saying before I start the next level, which could be something like a large 30 x 40″ studio piece. That ‘ll probably mean some sketchbook roughs to move things around and see what I’m after.

Your thoughts?

Something’s Burning

Somedays, I like to disappear and spend time alone in the middle of the vortex.  For whatever reason, I seek out  and find myself utterly connected and in-the-moment in such a place as this.  The combination of the danger,  the stability of the rocks, and the absolute craziness of the sea, with the powerful light falling across it always makes a tremendous impact on me. It’s just like life, and I admire it.   And that’s a marvelous standpoint from which to compose and paint.


This composition came as a result of one of these afternoons.  I took the time to carve out a sketchbook drawing as a reminder, but am already so taken with the place that I  intend to return in a day and begin an oil sketch.  More to come…