February 21, 2011

A New Painting: "Plus/Minus"

Plus/Minus, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 5 x 6 inches.

Working on this painting was a lesson in balancing details with the whole. I had spent some time working on the left section with all those little shapes in light and shadow. When I looked at that painting, the little shapes jumped out and didn't sit on the surface; they were yelling 'here I am!'. They took away from the overall illusion of shapes pushing forward in space. Frustrated, I glazed a couple of layers of paint over the details, which showed me how I should proceed: each tone had to maintain an overall harmony with the light of each plane. When I went back and began again to clarify the details I tried not to make the darks too dark or the lights too bright. The middle section, in more light, has more contrast in the details.

You can see in this detail, which is much larger than the actual painting, that my brushwork is not extremely exact. If I try too hard to draw everything 'just right' the painting ends up being too tight and dry. The challenge of this painting reminded me of a show of Renaissance drawings many years ago at the Frick. The exhibition focused on Michelangelo, but also included artists who were contemporaries and followers. What was strikingly clear was that Michelangelo's drawings, though full of detail and incident, never lost the sense of a whole, while the lesser artists' images broke apart into detail upon detail.

Piet Mondrian, Composition 10 (Pier and Ocean), 1915, oil on canvas, 33 1/2 x 42 1/2

When I first gathered the image for this painting, I immediately thought of Mondrian's paintings based on a Pier and the Ocean––plus-minus, vertical-horizontal––so my Plus/Minus is an homage to these beautiful works.


  1. I am impressed by the use of blues. A blue painting with so many variations of blue. The image is wonderful too. Interesting association with Mondrian. Nice

  2. Thanks deesha. I repainted the shadowed blues in the lower part of the painting many times; it was hard getting them right. (I'm not completely satisfied with the photo, but it was the best I could do.) Mondrian really did pop into my head months ago when I first shot the image.

  3. Well done, channeling Mondrian through Sultan. He'd be delighted.