May 30, 2015

My Changing Eye

As I walked around a familiar local hill farm yesterday, one with sweeping views of the surrounding landscape, I thought about how my eye has changed over the many years I've been going there. This photo, and all the others in this post are from yesterday's farm visit, and show different ways of seeing. Twenty years ago I may have wanted to paint an image like this, with agricultural architecture within a landscape....

Milking Time, Landaff, New Hampshire, 1991; oil on canvas, 32 x 110 in.

....a painting such as this, with the buildings and roads leading back in space. I often added figures for a narrative element.

Over time I became more interested in the stuff of farming, the ordinary things––machinery, plastics, structures such as silage bunkers and hoop barns––that were "ugly", and were evidence of the messy actuality of agriculture.

Blue Bucket, Barnet, Vermont, 1998; egg tempera on panel, 12 x 12 in.

So here I painted a battered plastic bucket, its color beautiful, meant as a warning for the culvert below. I painted this in the studio using a color study and black and white photos, as I did with all my work during these years. This scene was on the same farm that I photographed yesterday.

Irrigation Pipes, Barnet, Vermont, 2002; oil on canvas, 52 x 84 in.

At the time I loved the idea of contrasting the conventional beauty of the landscape with the industrial elements of modern farming. This view is across the valley from yesterday's farm, which can be seen on the hill in the distance at the left.

Then landscape began to recede in importance for me. Actually, I could no longer stand to do the work of painting all those distant trees, all that detail. I wanted to simplify the structure of my paintings.

Soon there was no landscape at all in the paintings, just the objects, seen almost as still life. I remember in the early 2000s, my gallery telling me that they could sell my work better if I put more landscape in it; I had to reply that it no longer had any landscape at all.

Black Tank (for Guston), 2005; egg tempera on panel, 27 x 32

Now it was just the things that excited me, even a fuel tank that I saw at this same farm, so different in subject and structure from Blue Bucket above. I painted some fairly complex, large compositions, along with smaller ones. So, I can do that kind of work, and I know a lot of people are disappointed that I don't still do it, especially the paintings with landscape. But we have to do what feels right to us, and what I have become most interested in is the tradition of twentieth century minimalist abstraction; I wanted to take what I knew and see it through that reductive lens. Those are the paintings that most excite me––paintings by, for instance, Mondrian, Malevich, Popova; and more recently Kelly, Heilmann, Mangold, Tantric painting––not twentieth century representational painting (although of course there are artists that I love who paint the visual world, such as Morandi and Sheeler). Hopper used to be an artist hero of mine; now it's Blinky Palermo.

So here is where I end up: a circle above an angled plane, cast shadows, and two small circles below. A representation, simplified, pared down to a few elements, which will change a bit when transformed into paint. It is not my job to judge my work, just to do the best that I think I can, while loving the process, which I do.

May 28, 2015

A New Batch of Small Drawings

sd 33, egg tempera with distemper on paper, ca. 7 x 7 in. 

Working on this series of small drawings allows me to play––to loosely improvise in a painterly way––which is very different from the style of my other projects (which also makes me more uncertain about them). I do the major part of the painting, using 2 inch wide brushes, with the colors I've mixed that day for the ground colors of my larger drawings. You can see the finished drawings from this session here; their colored grounds influence these small works. I haven't before named the paint that I use for laying down that color: I mix powdered pigment with a gelatin size solution, which is a distemper. From now on I'll be more clear about the medium rather than just saying "hand toned". So, in sd 33, the orange and blue arcs are painted in distemper; the small oval at top is egg tempera, added later. I thought it brought more whimsy to what was already a playful image.

sd 34, egg tempera with distemper on paper, ca. 7 x 7 in. 

This piece is much more somber. The distemper is the brown and gray, with added thick lines in egg tempera. It would have been possible to change the tone by doing something different with the added paint, but I stuck with the vertical/horizontal, darkly colored theme. 

sd 35, egg tempera with distemper on paper, ca. 7 x 7 in. 

One thing that's great about this medium is that it is quick drying, which allows for translucent layering of color. I pinned down the flowing shapes with a small gray-blue square.

sd 36, egg tempera with distemper on paper, ca. 7 x 7 in. 

sd 36 is an instance when I took a mistake and used it: some small drops of dark paint fell on the bottom of the sheet, so I widened them a bit, then added two more lines of drops.

sd 37, egg tempera with distemper on paper, ca. 7 x 7 in. 

I've already noticed a sad tendency on my part to repeat myself, to find a comfortable form and repeat it: a horizontal band at top and a vertical one on the right side. I did it in sd 35 and sd 39 and sd 37 above. I got annoyed with myself, so I turned this one on its side, then added the orange mark in egg tempera.

sd 38, egg tempera with distemper on paper, ca. 7 x 7 in. 

A layer of opaque dark red floats over color that is more transparent. The blue rectangle rises above the other layers, or maybe just holds them in place.

sd 39, egg tempera with distemper on paper, ca. 7 x 7 in. 

I tend to add very little in egg tempera to these drawings; here it's just the ocher rectangle at the bottom left.....

sd 40, egg tempera with distemper on paper, ca. 7 x 7 in. 

....and here the three horizontal blue lines. They are finishing touches, of a more controlled sort.

May 26, 2015

Tulip Festival

Each fall I plant a row of tulips in my vegetable garden, where they will be protected from admiring deer who think they are delicious. Each spring I have vases and pitchers of tulips gracing the house, where I can admire their form and watch them change over time until they drop their petals. And each spring since 2010 I have photographed the tulips and shared them in a blog post: here are links to the posts from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. The unnamed tulip above (I often get incorrectly labeled bulbs) has a classic tulip shape, with rounded petals forming a perfect cup.

The tulip is such an elegant flower that it brings order to my messy desk.

I was drawn to photograph single flowers this year, so as to highlight their color and shape. This tulip, which came in the same bag as the first one, is clearly not the same variety. It has the same perfect shape, but its petals are lightly flecked with pale yellow, and its base is white, not green.

This dark red tulip has dramatic darker purplish flames rising up on its slightly fringed petals.

Lily-flowered tulips are among my favorites. Their narrow pointed petals are beautiful in different stages: when they are closed, looking like pursed lips; as here in a slightly opened form....

....and when fully expanded, and looking like their namesake lilies. This variety is named Purple Dream.

The varied colors and irregular form of the spectacular parrot tulips––this one is Rococo––remind me of the story of Tulip mania that took hold in the Netherlands in the 17th century, when a single bulb may have fetched an enormously high price. The Wikipedia article at the link explains that this may have been something of a myth. Nonetheless, tulips had recently been introduced to Europe from Turkey, and their value as beautiful flowers was clearly understood.

Even as it moves toward the end of its life, the Rococo tulip has a dramatic presence.

This is a truly gorgeous tulip that I haven't grown before, the viridiflora tulip Esperanto. Viridiflora is from the Latin viridis, "fresh green", as the center of the petals have a green flame. In this tulip the green is bordered by white and pinks, and it's such a pleasure to see the variations in color and the changes in shape as the pointed, wavy petals open.

As I was photographing Esperanto, Poppy got into a picture; she was interested in the insects mating on the windowpane outside.

Lastly, a yellow tulip, blooming outdoors in the peony border. Many years ago I planted several Emperor tulips there, and from time to time one or two will bloom. After all the red tulips––for some reason I didn't realize all the tulips I had ordered were in the red family––it is a treat to see a yellow one; it can fit into the red theme because of the very thin red border along its petals. The photographs keep the tulips present; in the garden they have given way to lilacs, which in turn will give way to other flowers during this grand season of spring.

May 21, 2015

At the Met: Feasting and Fighting in Persian Art

"Timur before Battle", folio from a dispersed copy of the Zafarnama of Sharaf al-din Yazdi; Iran, 1436; ink, opaque watercolor, silver, and gold on paper; 11 1/2 x 8 in. 

I love manuscript painting––whether Indian, or Persian, or Islamic, or Medieval European––for its intimate size, its clarity of form and attention to detail, its beautifully wrought storytelling. So I was happy to see the small exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bazm and Razm: Feast and Fight in Persian Art. These two activities were important to kingship; how surprising to learn that the ruler was valued for his ability to engage in battle and to hunt, but also to enjoy the bounties of the table, of wine and of music. It is hard to imagine our contemporary leaders being expected to excel at feasting. From the wall label at the show I learned:
In the bazm mode, the king's ability to savor worldly pleasures such as food, wine, poetry, and music was praised.  The opulence and ceremony at court, with lavish displays of dress, jewels, luxury objects, and textiles, as well as the maintenance of an extensive entourage and harem, wer all measures of the shah's distinction. In the razm mode, a ruler's success was marked by his ferocity, courage, tenacity in battle, and ability to defeat the most brutal enemies as well as his prowess in riding, hunting, weaponry, and strategic games. 
The commemoration of these events has brought us many beautiful paintings. In "Timur Before Battle", the artist repeats curves, behind which are soldiers, the king, and a golden sky. The diagonals of banner staff and umbrella emphasize those curves. Within this simple structure are fine details of armor; all is joyously colored.

Prince in a Garden Courtyard, Iran, 1525-30; opaque watercolor, ink, gold, and silver on paper; 
8 9/16 x 4 3/4 in. 

The elements of feasting are shown in this painting: food, wine, and music in a lovely setting. Persian painting is almost miraculous in its depiction of precise, complex details. The attention paid to every aspect of the scene is intense, and close to magical in the painting's small size.

"Preparation for a Feast", folio from a Divan of Jami; Iran, late 15th century; opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper; painting 6 15/16 x 4 3/4 in. 

Getting ready for a large feast could take days; this tiny painting shows many parts of the meal being prepared, from slaughtering of animals, to making bread, to various cauldrons on the boil.

"Preparation for a Feast" detail

On the lower right, food is being ladled into bowls. The composition of the painting, structured only by the sky at top bisected by a tree, and a small stream towards the bottom, emphasizes the hectic activity.

"Entertainment in a Garden", folio from a Khamsa of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, Matla' al-Anvar, detail; Iran, second half 16th century; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; painting 12 5/8 x 7 1/8 in.
See the entire painting on the Met's website

At the bottom of this busy scene of a feast are musicians and guests. The painting is surrounded by a geometric and floral pattern, made more precious with gold.

Tile, Iran, second half 17th century; stonepaste, polychrome glaze within wax resist outlines; 8 x 8 in.

Included in the exhibition are objects related to the twin themes; here, a tile showing a shallow wine cup and a bowl of fruit.

Kamanche and Dayere, Iran, 19th century

The kamanche, a bowed instrument, and the drum, the dayere, can be seen in the painting above, "Entertainment in a Garden". They are beautiful objects in themselves, and though of a later date, are traditional in form and use.

"Bahram Gur Shows His Skill Hunting while Fitna Watches", folio from a Haft Paykar of Nizami; Iran, mid 16th century; opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper, 13 1/4 x 8 1/4 in. 

Even in a scene of death, the artist presents the action within the vitality of flowering plants.

Hunting Scene, detail; Iran, mid 16th century; ink, transparent watercolor, and gold on paper; 7 1/4 x 11 3/4 in. 
See the entire painting at the Met's website.

There is also a great sensitivity in the depiction of animals and of plants.

Artist 'Abd al-Vahhab, "Zal Slays Khazarvan" from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp; Iran, 1525-30; opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper; painting 11 1/16 x 7 3/16 in. 

The symmetry of the grouped armies and the two leaders locked in battle enhances the drama of the event.

"Zal Slays Khazarvan" detail

Even in paintings of mortal combat, Persian artists revel in the decorative: the violet hillside, the pool surrounded by flowers and roiling rocks. This attention to the loveliness found everywhere makes these paintings a pleasure to look at, to wander through, no matter the subject.

Mace, Persian, 19th century; steel, gold; 32 1/2 in. 

Here is a later example of the ox-head mace with which Zal slayed Khazarvan. It is a lovely thing, and the wall label tells me that it: mentioned in Iranian myths and epics as a symbol of the victory of good over evil and order over chaos. 

Helmet, Persian, 18th-19th century; steel, gold; height with mail 28 in., without mail 6 7/8 x 8 in diameter. 

It is so interesting to see objects that are the models for those in paintings of an earlier time. There is as much beauty in these things of war as in those of music, and as much grace as in the paintings.

May 18, 2015

Four New Drawings

#49, egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper, 15 x 15 in.

For the past two or three weeks I've had a very hard time staying indoors and working. The weather has been beautiful after the endless winter, so all I want to do is work in the garden, enjoying the sweet air and light. Sometimes art takes a back seat to the rest of life, just for a while. There are occasional days of bad weather, though, days to stay indoors. Last week I was able to do a new group of drawings, to flex my art muscles. The drawing above, #49, has paper toned a silvery gray; I used a pigment called Slate Gray, with added white, and a little bit of ultramarine blue. I wanted it to be slightly bluish because I knew I'd be painting a couple of the shapes in a blue hue.

#50, egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper, 15 x 15 in.

There is a mix of earth colors as a base for this drawing. I might have also put a very thin, transparent layer of a cadmium orange, but I don't remember. When I tone paper or paint I don't keep a record of my color mixing. I add this or that, layer again or not, depending on how the piece is looking at the time. 

#50 detail

The blue semi-circles are fairly opaque, with yellow layered on top of the blue, creating a color shift where they overlap.

#51, egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper, 15 x 15 in.

I thought that the composition study for this drawing was a little silly (though I like it), so I thought that putting it on a dark color might tamp down the hilarity. Or maybe you don't think it's silly....

#52, egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper, 15 x 15 in.

This last drawing has two simple, but somewhat offbeat, shapes. I decided to keep the color fairly translucent, because the shapes give me a feeling of floating, or of flight.

I have to admit that while I was working on these drawings (and a group of small drawings) I was wondering if I wanted to continue with them; did I have enough interest in the project? Then I printed out a bunch of new blank templates and began figuring out new designs, just jumping in with pencil and gouache. I pretty easily came up with 8 new ideas: the 6 at the left, and the two top left drawings on the right panel. This fascinating pattern called again for my attention, a pattern from sacred design, of six circles around one.

May 14, 2015

"Other Nations"

Four days ago, while waiting for the American Toads to begin their loud trilling so that I could record it, I had a kind of revelation: it was a recognition of the lives around me, lives large and small, longer and shorter, that went on mostly without my notice. When I walked down to the pond, my movement silenced the toads, so I sat by the edge of the pond for over 1/2 hour, waiting for them to sing. I rarely just sit and pay attention to what is in front of me, something I should do more often. What caught my eye at first was what was brightest and most obvious: the marsh marigolds growing along the water's edge. Insects ran around and across them.

My pond is human dug, and I added koi to it, but the fish live independent lives, since I never feed them. It was a warm day, and as I watched, I saw a fish leap in the air to catch one of the insects hovering above the water.

There were insects above the water, moving on it, and moving below it. A sense of motion was constant, but very easily missed. 

The male toads make this sound, a sound I think is beautiful, in order to attract females. Their throats expand outward and a huge noise comes out from this small animal.

Today, four days later, the toads are gone, the pond is quiet. I began to walk around looking for their eggs, but didn't see them. They weren't in the spot that is usually full of Wood Frog eggs. When I'd made nearly the entire circuit of the pond, I found them, entwined in the debris at the shallow end of the pond.

The eggs are laid in long skeins of jelly, twisting and curving in and out of last year's leaves and stems.

They are like jewels catching light. To think that those little dark dots will grow into new beings! to be sure, many will not make it, but it's a marvel nonetheless. My thoughts during these days made me appreciate much more deeply this quote from the American writer and naturalist Henry Beston:
We patronize the animals for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.