thinking in images

My husband doesn’t think in images, or if he does, they involve engineering diagrams.

Right now I am painting a Christmas gift for him, a large canvas of a river cabin that he’s seen on the Combahee. It’s an iconic Lowcountry image, the river cabin with a porch out over the water. Like the long saltmarsh docks with a tin roofed dockhouse on the end. You see either one and you know where you are.

You might see tin roofed dockhouses in Florida, but the dock isn’t 1500 feet long over the spartina grass. And you might see a river house anywhere, but if it’s in a blackwater swamp, mostly hidden under Spanish moss and live oaks, well….there’s only a few places.

So, I am painting this for him, and plan to have a finished image that is somewhere between the realism my husband likes, and the magical light of Thomas Kincaid. I’d rather it was the magical light of Maxfield Parrish, but I’m not that good.

Anyway, he sees every part of it literally and I anticipate the final product. So when I asked him to look at the painting a couple weeks ago and tell me if he liked how it was going, he immediately told me that the water didn’t look like water.

I knew that. It wasn’t anywhere near where it would be in suggesting water. That comes much later in the painting. In fact, the glitter of sunlight as it slips through the trees, onto the leaves and the river, is one of the last bits I’ll paint.

But even though I asked him how it was “coming along” — which, to me, said “unfinished” — he expected more from the “water.” He couldn’t picture the finished piece without it. I could see it in the underpainting.

It’s one of the interesting elements of painting, the beginning. When I first picked up a brush, almost 20 years ago, I had images in my mind that I was anxious to see emerge on the canvas. I was impatient to see the finished product, and it was like being a little kid having to wait for something.

I knew what I wanted to see at the end and I wanted to get there…now!

But , I discovered over time, a painting is a lot like a road trip. You know where you are going, how you plan to get there, and why you want to be there. What you often don’t expect is the pleasure of the scenery along the way. And as I became a better painter and learned how the elements unfolded, I came to enjoy the underpaintings almost as much as the finished piece.

The underpaintings of my city series were especially fun. There are about a hundred of them, counting some multiple versions of certain cities, like Raleigh, and Houston and Oklahoma City (places where I have great collectors!).

Some cities I painted in groups, especially in 2014 when I was doing a corporate commission of 27 American cities. I’d do 3 or 4 at a time in the same palette, like Phoenix, Denver and some SoCal metros. After I had been painting cities for a few years with good success, I developed some techniques, besides the obvious one of drawing the skyline. I’d paint all the major buildings in the same color, for example. And “sketch” in lesser blocks like watercolors.

You didn’t see that in the end because I’d usually bring them closer to reality, well, my blocky-color-saturated-reality, anyway. But I often liked those unfinished cities, and if I had the time, I’d let them sit on the wall that way, and let them “simmer.” It’s a wonderful way to be able to paint, to have the time to let things hang unfinished until you get the spark that says, “that’s what needs to be there!” Or, “that’s how the light needs to come in.

Light and shadow have to be consistent and when I was commissioned cities I hadn’t actually been to, I’d spend the time to research their orientation and make sure I didn’t have a sunset in the north, for example. Sometimes that’s obvious in source photographs, but not always.

So the blocked in underpainting might all be shades of blue, or shades of red. And the sky might be yellow. Kids loved that stage.

(Actually kids like all my city paintings, because they are very geometric and it reminds them of Minecraft.  I discovered that in the Twentytens, on the road at fancy art shows.  There weren't often a lot of kids and most of them were bored, especially at the "fine art only" shows - no crafts, no wooden toys, nothing for kids.  So from 2010 on, when the cities were my main body of work, boys -- eight to twelve, mostly -- would sometimes make a beeline for my tent.  Often they'd have to drag their parents.  It took me a little while to ferret out why they were so taken with them, and Minecraft came to light.  Then I had to learn what that was -- you build cities and things! -- and then I had grandsons who were into it.  The joys of art on the road.) 

Back to picturing what’s coming, though. Once you get used to painting and the time involved, the underpaintings become more enjoyable for themselves. Sometimes I didn’t want to let go of the blocky kidstuff version.

In the early days of my public studio, I was surrounded by some amazing and accomplished artists in the other studios. We were all working artists, and no one at that time rented their spaces just for the retail aspect. In fact, several of the artists in those ten studios kept their doors closed at all times. Some never even opened for “First Fridays,” an evening when most hoped to make a few dollars.

Those were early days in the Raleigh art community and there was some actual fine art and innovation going on, and some of the artists involved were protective of their work until it was “ready.” Once you show to the public, anyone can copy you. But if people can’t see how you do something, it will be more difficult. This was before most “digital” art, so innovations in mixed media, for example, were kept close to the vest.

One of these very fine artists, who created huge, unusual work, involving lots of mixed media, was also one of the painters who kept his door closed most days. I actually think he may have lived in his studio for awhile, but that’s beside the point. So we never got to see how he put together these gigantic paintings which had little “reveals” of photographs and posters and pages of newspapers, all of them precisely exposed to further the narrative of the whole.

One morning I came in, earlier than usual, and both doors were wide open and his assistant was on a ladder six feet off the floor (it was an old warehouse and the ceiling was at least 16 feet up.) He had a stack of magazine pages on the ladder shelf, and he was applying the pages to the wood “canvas.” (This artist used wood as his base, long before Ampersand sold it.)

I put my things away, got my coffee and talked with him for awhile. He was an artist, too, and later had some success himself, but he was willing to work as an assistant, just like I was willing to work in the gallery. Whatever it took to keep painting. There were probably hundreds of magazine pages and they were all the same magazine. There was a theme, but as we both knew, only parts of them would show up in the end.

I was amazed that so much would go into the under”painting” — 99% of which would never be seen, but I also know that many artists have such a commitment to the “messages” in their work, that the ten feet by six feet of magazine pages underneath was part of what drove the surface image for the artist. He knew they were there.

When he came in later, I asked him how he would know where things were that he wanted to reveal, and did he decide which things and paint around them? No, he made note of what he wanted to go back to “open up again” and took the paint off that area. That was a revelation to me. I’d never thought of taking paint off, to achieve something — unless it was a mistake, and usually with those you just paint over!

I’ve been taking paint off pieces ever since! In fact, nearly all of my city paintings and geometric abstracts employ that technique. Since learning that, I often paint areas with the idea that I will paint over them and then reveal them. In my case it’s usually glazes and washes that I open up underneath, to look more like water or sky or light on a building. In his case, he’d paint an entire narrative painting, odd narratives, but still….and then go back with alcohol or mineral oil and carefully brush it away, in just the right area.

He could always see those areas in his mind.

Maybe that’s how prophets see the future, like little “reveals” in a different picture….that’s a topic for another day. Now I have to go paint some water over some weeds. I’ll pull the weeds back out tomorrow.

It could be a mixed metaphor for life: Enjoy the underpainting — most of us have no idea what the finished piece will look like, but the scenery along the way helps build the story.

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