There are myriad reasons why artists make art. For me, the compulsion to make images has always come from a desire to communicate concepts that can only be communicated with visual images. Even as a child, I was always deeply affected by the way that certain images could conjure up feelings and emotions in me when I saw them and was driven early on by a desire to be able to do that. The struggle to make the intangible tangible – to turn abstract concepts, feelings and emotions into form – is at the heart of the art-making process for me and many others. If we're trying to say something unique and original, something that hasn't been said before, we often find ourselves striving to find the form to be able to do that.
Very often when people first see my paintings their initial reaction is to ask "Where is that?" or "Whose house/barn is that?". Whenever I hear that, I feel that somehow I have failed to communicate because illustrating specific structures and describing the topography are not my concerns at all. I'm much more interested in finding unique color harmonies that covey emotions, capturing the energy, gesture and movement that are the direct result of struggling to make what I'm feeling manifest through shapes, lines, textures and colors, and the ways that colors and paint interact and take on a life of their own as they fall out onto the canvas and resist my will.
I've grown tired of barns and old houses – my studio is filled with them! Lately, I've been looking at little sections of my paintings and finding them more interesting and more truthful than the paintings as a whole. Divorced from the recognizable subject matter, the colors and shapes are free to say the things that I really have been trying to communicate all along. And so, for the time being anyway, I'll leave the barns and old houses and follow my muse wherever she may lead me...
My process involves thinking about the colors that will make up a painting before I ever begin to paint. I think of each color as a member of the cast in a play or a story. Some are major characters; some are minor characters. Some get along well with one another and others bring conflict into the composition. I also think of it like notes or chords in a musical composition – a key signature in which certain notes are used, others excluded, some are dominant and others subordinate to the overall harmony of the piece. I spend a lot of time working out the color scheme for each painting and usually spend two or three days just mixing colors before I begin to put any paint onto the canvas. It's an unusual process, but it works for me. It evolved out of working with pastels, beginning a picture with a single color and then adding more colors one by one. Each time I took a pastel stick from my box and used it in the picture, I would then put it into my left hand. The collection of colors that grew in my left hand became the characters for that drawing.
This was a difficult color scheme for me, more complex, I think, than any I've used before. It's built off of the secondary triad (orange, green and violet) – one of my favorite combinations – but there are yellows, reds and blues in there as well, and a lot of colors that approach what many call "browns" (I don't think of "brown" as an actual color; to me it's just desaturated oranges and reds.) and greys. It was a lot of work making all of these colors get along with one another and, unlike many of my paintings, there isn't a single color or pair of colors that is dominant. (Although, believe me, there were a few feisty ones, who shall remain nameless, that tried to take over the picture during its development!)
A few people who have seen this thought that the light blue areas were water, which is fine by me, but they were actually based on small patches of snow, the last vestiges of winter still lingering in the late Spring mud season. "But snow isn't blue!" you might say. Well, "neither is water", I retort. And what about those purple trees and the pink and yellow sky?
Personally, I think it's one of the best things I've done.
I found a large monograph of Caspar David Friedrich at the Harvard Coop in 1986, shortly after graduating from college and was instantly enamored by the image on the cover – his painting "Abbey in the Oak Wood" (sometimes called "Abbey Among Oak Trees") – and could't resist purchasing the book. Although I can't really claim Friedrich as very much of an influence, at least not with regards to technique, being a landscape painter as well as a hopeless romantic with a penchant for both nostalgia and covert allegory, I can't help but feel an affinity for him and some of his work.
I found these ancient apple trees on the back side of the Front Ridge here in Littleton, surrounded by dogwood (brazenly flaunting its blood-red hue in defiance of the bleak winter) and other leafless bramble, their branches entwined as if they'd been bound together for decades, protecting one another form the elements. I never thought of Friedrich whilst working on this painting or the many preliminary drawings that preceded it, but I must admit that the finished work reminds me of him.
Life is hard, often fraught with insurmountable challenges, sorrow and grief. Having someone at our side to share the burden can be wonderful and can be a source of strength when we need it most.
I have been fascinated with bare trees lately and have spent a lot of time over the past few months making detailed pencil drawings such trees in the area around my home. The empty branches have such great movement in them, with lines twisting and turning and wrapping around one another, sometimes like a frozen dance. At first glance, bare trees all seem remarkably similar, but as I study and draw each one, I find myself becoming closely acquainted with the individual personality of each tree. Trees have taken on such life in my mind, that lately I have found myself walking in the woods and feeling like I'm surrounded by people rather than leafless trees. Like us, each has its stories – some good, some bad, some long and complicated, some straight and to the point. The branches hold the stories of things that have happened to the tree, challenges it has faced, visitors that it has hosted, storms that it has weathered. These stories and secrets are laid bare during the bleak winter months, ripe for the picking to anyone willing to take the time. Soon, all of the trees round here will be covered with leaves. The branches will be invisible, but somehow I know that when I see them, I will be keenly aware of what lies beneath the greenery.
I began painting exclusively with a knife about eight years ago. The reason for this was that I felt like I couldn't make a stroke in oil paint with a brush that didn't look like something that I had seen before. Making paintings that no one else could possibly have made was important to me, so I endeavored to develop my own personal system of mark making. I essentially use the same knife for everything. It's not even a painting knife; it's a palette knife – made for mixing colors on the palette – but it's what I feel most comfortable working with. I also paint with my canvas lying fat on a table, rather than propped up vertically on an easel, which enables me to turn the canvas (or walk around the table) and easily paint from any side of the canvas. One of the things that appeals to me about this method is that I am constantly forced to find ways to articulate what I'm trying to say without being able able to resort to copying the tried-and-true methods of other painters. Making art offers us an opportunity to celebrate our uniqueness, and finding a personal way of painting has always been a top priority for me. Suggesting a tree with this method is always a challenge, but I'm quite pleased with the way this came out.
Here is another one (see two posts down) that left the studio over a year ago, thinking it was done, only to return and be almost completely painted over. You can see the original, which I was actually quite pleased with when I did it, here.
However, as I continually grow and develop as an artist, I see things differently. (As an aside, I saw an interview with the painter Brice Marden once and he said something which I thought was very apropos about how each time we look at a painting the experience is different because, even though the painting hasn't changed, we have.)
This painting was at the Kada Gallery in Erie, PA for a year. I brought it back to my studio in November of last year and found that I wasn't as satisfied with it as I had thought I was. I went back and looked at the series of pastel drawings that I had done before commencing work on the original painting and found that one of the qualities that I liked about the drawings was the value contrast between the building and the sky, something that was missing from the painting. So I began to rework the painting by darkening the value of the building and adding, consequently, more color to it. This, however, caused the building to push forward and compete with the foreground so I added more value contrast and saturated greens and oranges to the foreground in order to make it advance in front of the building. I also reworked the sky, making it bluer at the top and greener closer to the horizon. Having to repaint the negative spaces between the tree branched necessitated repainting a lot of the trees in order to maintain the softer edges of wet paint meeting wet paint.
In the end, I think it's a much better painting and I'm glad that it returned to me so I could finish it.
I have learned that "winter" paintings aren't very popular. People don't like snow and generally don't like to be reminded of it. But I live in northern Maine, where we have seven months of winter and the inspiration for my images comes, in part, from observing the world around me, so it's difficult to not have some paintings that suggest a snow-covered landscape. Snow is white, though, and white contains all the colors of the visual spectrum, so it's fertile ground when it comes to explorations in color, especially if one is willing to use one's imagination.
I'd much rather think about color than snow, anyway.
I am often asked "How do you know when a painting is finished?".
My answer: "When I sell it, because then I can't work on it any more."
This was one of those paintings that took years to finish, as happens sometimes. It began in the autumn of 2011 as a series of pastel drawings of one of my favorite subjects, the old McBride homestead on the Framingham Road here in Littleton (which, sadly, is due to be razed some time this spring). I did an oil painting shortly thereafter, which ended up hanging in two shows over the following 6 months. However, once I got the painting back to my studio I was forced to realize that I wasn't completely happy with it. The house was much bigger and there were three trees in the foreground. I ended up pulling the canvas off the stretchers and stretching a new canvas and starting again with this composition – pushing the house farther back and eliminating one of the trees in the foreground. The resulting painting was better than the original, but I knew instinctively that it wasn't quite finished. I left it leaning against the wall in my studio (for two and a half years!), often contemplating it and trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Finally, I realized that the biggest problem with it was that the road in the foreground had too much orange in it – the result of me thinking (which is never a good idea when you're trying to make art!) that the orange would give a sense of the light on the road. In reality, the orange in the road was fighting with the orange in the grass, so I made the grey in the road cooler, with less orange and even increased the amount of orange in the grass, which in turn caused the sky to appear even more blue - an unexpected bonus hat caused the touches of orange in the trees and chimney to pop out.
I think it's a good idea to not force oneself to "finish" a painting, but to allow it to come to fruition in its own time. The paintings want to be finished, and if we're patient, diligent and observant, they will eventually let us know what they need – and maybe even teach us some important lessons at the same time.
I am a full time artist, originally from Massachusetts, currently living in northern Maine. I work primarily in oils and pastel, and occasionally watercolor. I offer instruction in drawing and painting at my studio in a renovated potato house. Please feel free to view samples of my work (You can see a larger version of each picture if you click on it.) and leave a comment if you are so inclined. Be sure to click the "Older Posts" button at the bottom to see more work. I don't always have time to respond to comments, but if you wish to correspond with me, you can e-mail me at email@example.com