December 1, 2011

A New Painting: "Three Cylinders", with Thoughts on Light and Touch

Three Cylinders, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 1/4 x 7 1/4 inches.

I have spent a few days with this painting, looking at it in different locations, alongside other work, and still have the feeling that I had when I just finished it: I don't care for it. There are a couple of reasons, which I'll try to make clear. You may wonder why I even bother to show work on this blog that I don't think is successful; I do so because I find it helpful to my own thinking to articulate what is bothering me, and the discussion that sometimes follows with my readers, here and on Facebook, is often elucidating.

This image immediately offered a challenge in how to balance the abstract and realist elements. Most of my images are closely cropped so that there is nothing to place them in a real space; sometimes there's a bit of flat blue for a background sky which usually isn't problematic. Here, there's a space at right that might read too realistically as sky and green earth, so I tried painting the entire shape blue, thinking it would seem more abstract, which is where I'd like the painting to be. But that didn't work; the composition needed a horizontal to balance all the verticals. So then I tried mixing a blue that was more an idea of blue, without the light that a sky would have. You see the result of that above. That didn't work either.

Fra Angelico, The Apostle Saint James the Greater Freeing the Magician Hermogenes, ca late 1420s; tempera and gold on panel; 10 x 8 7/8 inches.

I believe that the reason it didn't work for me is that I was mixing two different ideas of light; the blue was a conceptual color, color simplified. In the early Renaissance, as in Fra Angelico's paintings, color is beautifully conceived, but the rendering of light uses only value: lighter and darker red, blue, etc.

Camille Pissarro, L'Hermitage a Pointoise, 59 x 79 inches, 1867

While when we get to the Impressionists, we see warm and cool colors used to render sparkling light effects, for a more naturalistic sense of landscape. For many years, I've attempted to convey a vivid quality of light, more in line with Impressionist color, along with a sense of solid form. attempt at a conceptual sky did not mesh with the naturalistic light of the cylinders; one or the other would have to change, so I changed the sky. I wanted to keep the fresh light in the cylinders since it is part of the tension between real and abstract that I love. But I remain uneasy in the relationships of cylinders to background. (and oh! my painting looks dead next to the Pissaro and the Fra Angelico.)

The other thing that makes me uncomfortable is the way I handled the paint. My brush marks are labored, without life, clunky. I had one of those hard times that occur from time to time, when I feel as though I can't paint: every mark is a struggle, I keep getting spots of dust lifting the paint, it looks clumsy instead of graceful. I always hope there's a sense of magic in a painting, even for me who made it, as though it transcends the nuts and bolts of its making; this painting does not come close to succeeding in that. Feel free to differ, or agree...


  1. "I always hope there's a sense of magic in a painting, even for me who made it, as though it transcends the nuts and bolts of its making;" I've always felt this way too.

    I wish I could see it in real life but from what I see on the screen I think you analyzed it well. I love to read this kind of thing. I feel I learn so much from doing so. Thank you for having the courage to lay it all out like this.

  2. Hi Altoon, First let me compliment you on showing work you are not fond of. I'ts a brave and ultimately cathartic act and makes us stronger as artists. I did the same thing a few months back with a neckpiece I made and disliked intensely. So I posted it on my page and offered a prize to anyone who could write the best poem about it. I got so many poems back it was hysterical and in between the lines were words of wisdom that helped me laugh at myself. As to your recent painting, I understand what you are trying to do and why you are uncomfortable with it. Photos can't show me the offending brushstrokes but I do see there are 2 paintings vying for my attention. I put a white card over the blue and green background and saw the dimensional realism, then I put the card over the verticals and saw the color blocked abstraction. I'm always amazed by the way you deftly rangle these 2 disciplines and far be it for me to offer anything else but these observations. I will say however that while I understand your concerns about the blue, in the end, it's that little green patch of land that drew my attention first and last. Keep painting.

  3. Very interesting thoughts on color here. Thanks for sharing your journey with this. I see the puzzle as you clearly describe. While you are far more experienced painter I will just throw in my 2 cents anyway. Hard to really see what is going on with the surfaces in a digital image but what I would want to see happen to that blue is a sense of very different touch than is happening anyplace else. Even as extreme as hide the brush. And maybe only slightly sneak the brush back in that is so much your voice. my first reaction to the right side was wanting it to more flat. I absolutely love what you do with the balance of realist and abstract elements.

  4. Elaine, thanks for the support in my feeling.

    Donna, I love your story about the poem and prize. A reader on facebook had a very similar reaction to yours about the two paintings. Yes, that little patch of green is a problem, but it didn't work without it either. oh well.

    David, thanks for the overall praise, and your comment about touch is very interesting. It's possible that a contrast of surface might have helped, a flatness in that right side. I certainly thought of that as I worked, but didn't follow through with it.

  5. Thanks for sharing your process. I do this too- openly analyze unfinished or questionable works in progress and feel as though I can't paint. In my own work, I am suspect of things that have come too easy and sometimes the digital distance makes something jump out. There's an interesting tension in the top one that makes me want to push the cylinders out of the way.

  6. A dissenting opinion...
    I actually like this painting. I find it interesting because the center is kind of a blank. It seems to have two focal points- the left side and the right side which creates a kind of challenging optical experience, as if it was a view master image but with different images on the left and right.

  7. I loved this post. Your last paragraph, about your brush strokes feeling labored, without life, clunky - every mark a struggle, the lack of a sense of magic? For brush strokes and marks substitute sentences and words; that's EXACTLY how I feel as a writer sometimes. I have a quote from I.B. Singer on my wall: "Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression."

  8. Since I am not a painter, I am especially fascinated by your process. Over time, I have learned the most from people In many disciplines whom I admire from their descriptions of what happened when they felt they learned from their "failures." so too here. However, as a viewer, I experience the piece from a different perspective and I actually like the result. Like some others, I feel the tension b/w abstraction and realism creates a dynamic tension. And find that lower right square essential.

  9. thank you all, for the interesting views on this post. I appreciate all the differing opinions and they all help me think about the process more deeply.

  10. For whatever reason, the only thing that stands out for me are the horizontal lines on the middle cylinder. It's just a gut reaction and I'm not sure why. I wonder what the painting would look like without them. If it would sink into itself. I personally love the green.

  11. anon., I tried the cylinder without those lines and didn't like it. nothing much worked for me, but that's okay.