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. So...my 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...