more different progress

i consider this finished.  in addition to the blue, i stuck on some more burnt umber on the trees, made the stripes on the palms by scraping some paint away, and took some of the light greens i used on the barn painting and put highlights on the plants.  then i made some van gogh stars to show how full of humidity the horizon was, and put in a couple of vague breaking waves, darkened the porch railing, and that’s it.  i’ll sign the back, and give it to the little kid who suggested it as a painting.

this is the amsterdam boat pastel underpainting, covered in wax paste prior to burning in.  the wax is very goopy because of the orange oil, more than i usually put in so that it would be goopy.  jim makes it up a lot stiffer than i need, so i just add orange oil on the top and come back in a few days to stir it all up as it dissolves.  the reason the wax is so damned opaque is that it hasn’t been burned in yet.

you can see how much clearer the wax is once it’s been melted and allowed to cool once more.  the idea behind the melting is to fuse all the layers of wax together.  this is partly unnecessary when you’re working with wax and citrus solvent mixed together to form a wax paste, because it’s not in layers when you do that, it’s got a solvent in it so the layers dissolve together.  or would, if i didn’t burn them in.  i like the burning in.

some painters use wax paste instead of molten wax (which they call ‘real encaustic TM’).  these soft wax painters come from an artist name of joel reeves who taught this in the late ’50s and early ’60s.  back then, everyone, from karl zerbe to jasper johns used solvents in their wax, but the solvent was turpentine, which is horribly toxic when inhaled as a heated fume.  so nobody does this anymore.  the proponents of ‘real encaustic TM‘ insist that all solvents are bad bad bad, and concentrate on using molten wax.  this means that the wax is heated constantly, and repeatedly, which does bad things to the wax (shortens the molecule chain every time) and puts beeswax and damar fumes into the air.  so the ‘real TM’ crowd hyperventilate their studios using industrial strength fume hoods and osha face masks.  this is a ridiculous overreaction to fumes, you can ask any oil painter who uses solvents.

anyway, we don’t take the safe-at-all-costs stance, and think the ‘real encaustic TM’ crowd are a little off the deep end.  we were taught to use solvents and paste wax, and avoid overheating the beeswax, and so when we discovered orange oil, we were delighted.  it’s mostly nontoxic.  you can eat it.  it makes me hungry to work with it.  the smell is highly pleasant, and i’ve got asthma and so should know if it’s harmful when inhaled.  and it’s not harmful to me.  the msds says it’s gras – generally recognized as safe, but others warn of liver toxicity, so it’s a good idea to have a fan going so the fumes don’t concentrate.  but it’s not going to kill either of us, and the effects you can get with paste wax burned in are tremendous – i can do details.

i’m not sure if i’ll be continuing with the boat and reflections painting, as i’m running out of time to experiment, and this painting isn’t an experiment but a real painting.

note on the luan panels.  i’ve been trying to cut the sheet down into boards, and am having trouble.  the circular saw is too rough and will tear the delicate wood up, so we’re not even trying that.  we tried the hand saw, but it was slow.  i tried a mat knife and it took for fucking ever, and i went out and got cutting blades for my dremel tool, but it would only cut halfway thru, and when i tried to score and snap it, the plywood broke at different places.  so we asked jim’s son michael, a professional woodworker, to cut it for me.  that way i don’t ruin all my panels, just the first four i tried to cut myself.

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furthering the progress

today it’s progress on the oil paintings, both on panel and on linen, and starting an encaustic on the new luan panels i cut from a big lumber-store sheet ($1.42 per 16×20 1/4″ panel, can’t beat it).

continuing the oil on panel painting of the beach at night from our cabin, i mixed up a very small amount of phthalo green and put it over the plants.  this will need some toning down, obviously, but i wanted a transparent wash to work from.

then i scraped up some ultramarine blue and mixed some of my white into it, and added some linseed oil, which is the first time i’ve done that.  so far, i’ve been using the calcium carbonate and sun-thickened linseed oil in a tube that jim made up some years ago, and if it needed thinning, i added some orange oil.  but this time i thinned the tube stuff with oil, probably going way too far with the fat over lean rule.  i mean, from orange oil thinner, which is like turpentine in that it evaporates immediately, to a way oily veil of blue and white – there have to be several steps of oilinity that i’ve passed over at once.

after that i mixed up some raw umber, another transparent color, and stuck it over the green, hoping to make it look like proper plants in the almost-darkness.

yesterday i mixed up some chrome green, and some ultramarine green into separate pools, and used each in different parts of the painting to represent the actual things that you can see are green.  there are lots of the painting where what you see isn’t really green, but reads that way.  these are actual green things because they’re either out in full sun, or are catching and reflecting the light while in the shade.  i also mixed up the smallest bit of cadmium red dark and after awhile a little white too, and put it on the barn and in the trees.

when i’d finished putting the sky in on the beach painting, i still had a bit of blue paint left, so i washed it over the sky and the house, and in fact made it stretch over all the background trees.  the result is mainly so spectacular because i let photoshop do the correction automatically, which is usually not the way i do it.  the photo above was done by hand, and you can see there the colors just aren’t right.  the automatic value correction is actually too garish, but at least the colors seem more true.

when i got done with the paintings i’d been working on, i turned my attention to my new luan panels.  this one is 16×20, which is large for the modern encaustic painting, but actually quite small for me.  the reason it’s the size it is is because it’s going in my luggage with me to ireland, and that’s as large a standard size as i can fit into my bag.  will i take all 14 with me?   stay tuned.

this one got a coat of clear acrylic gel medium, my ideas about sealing and priming my surfaces having changed after i lost a goodly amount of wax to the underneath side of my fabric during the previous attempt at encaustic.  i would still be working on panels jim made years ago and stacked against the wall if i weren’t gearing up to go on an artist’s residency, and going cold turkey on my reliance on commercially prepared paint.

at this stage the painting looks like a francis bacon.  i started with charcoal, and quickly ran into trouble, because i didn’t know which lines to mark down.  i was actually trying to represent the white lines by using the black charcoal.  so i got out my pastels, which jim gave me for xmas one year, and started in with the real colors.

and thank god.  there are white lines, and gray ones, sienna walls and prussian glass in the windows, black and brown shadows, and they all follow their own paths in all directions.  it’s a nightmare trying to get all the lines right, because you actually have to draw a web, working in all directions and making all the edges meet.

working in pastel is maybe not the greatest idea, since it’s really hard to rub it out and start over, especially when you’re working with a board that has an incredible amount of tooth once it’s been coated out with acrylic.

i was surprised how quickly i finished the pastel underpainting.  i noticed yesterday, when i was just starting the drawing, that i had an enormous amount of artistic resistance.  looking at the reference photo overwhelmed me immediately, especially when i was trying to draw it in with charcoal.  the complexity is maddening, but the distortions all have a rhythm, and all match up with another distortion in another part of the painting.  it all fits together, and if the proportions aren’t right, it looks awkward.

except you don’t notice, because you don’t have the reference photo to judge by, and one distortion looks like another when it comes to water.  so you won’t notice that the middle-left of the painting is squinched up too much, and i had to compensate by stretching it on the left side.  water could well do that, especially if there was some other disturbance interfering with the interference.

this isn’t the first time i’ve painted this image.  the first was several years ago, in oil on canvas, and 30×40, and hangs in my studio.  so i’ve been looking at it and wanting to do it in wax.  for an exercise painting, to see how well it’s going to work in the field, i really shouldn’t have chosen such a complex painting, one that will take weeks to finish and be every bit as complex in wax as it in in any other medium.

but i had to paint it again, and so i started on in.  it takes pastel really well, and i can see no reason why it won’t take wax even better, so i can stop now, and leave this painting until i get back from europe (or else take it and the reference photo and complete it at the residency).

jim actually painted the image first.  he did it up with acrylic on canvas, 30×40, and i remembered wanting to paint it when i took the photo, so the minute he was done, i grabbed the photo and started my own painting.  for awhile his hung on the studio wall, but then we switched out and now it’s my painting, but we take his back out for comparison when people want to see our work.

jim’s is different from mine.  he took great care rendering the walls and the moss and the boat, and was kind of slapdash about the reflections, whereas i’m not too good at rendering moss and boats and walls, but i get way into reflections and distortions, and mine are much more accurate than his.

after awhile of working on the impossible reflections, i began to notice that they looked like animals, or faces.  that’s our human tendency to make sense our of chaos, and i’ve always done this – after working on a jigsaw puzzle all day i’d go out for a breath of air, look up at the trees, and see giant jigsaw pieces in the treetops where i would normally see treetops, leaves and branches.

i thought last time i did this painting that this time i would paint the animals and never mind making lines out of them.  the eye will do that at a distance anyway.

i may not proceed with this painting, as i only have 3 weeks left to come up to speed with my materials.  i may stick it aside, but i’ll link back to this post if i do.

end of one phase, start of another

i’ve been attempting to make an encaustic painting on top of pelon fastened to foamcore.  pelon is a nonwoven interfacing fabric used in sewing.  foamcore is a lightweight plastic backing material used in picture framing.  neither is recommended for encaustic, but the idea was to use some sort of very lightweight substrate so that i wouldn’t have to haul masonite around in my luggage, which weighs a ton.  the idea was to make encaustic paintings by the bundle, using temporary backing, then peel it off and stack it interleaved with wax paper in order to bring it back home.

in this photo, you’re looking at a half-burned in layer of wax.  on the left, it’s still white and pasty-looking (this is a layer of mostly clear wax with a little bit of titanium white to make a veil).  this is mainly because the wax sort of foams, or whitens, as it’s spread onto the board with a palette knife.  once it’s hit with a grow light (which is the tool i use to burn in, while many others use a heat gun or blowtorch), and the wax melts, it unfortunately absorbs right into the pelon, which is not what i want.

lesson one:  pelon needs to be sized if i don’t want to lose a pound of wax into the fabric.  if i had sealed it with acrylic, i wouldn’t have such an absorbent surface, and i could have started making a waxy surface immediately.

what i’m trying to do here is to build up enough wax so that i have an actual waxy surface, and so far, as i wrote in my last post, it’s taken 6 layers, which is too much.  and it’s looking more crappy with every layer.

this layer, which is cobalt blue, is the first layer to even remotely surmount the pelon substrate.  and i’m not elated at all.

lesson two:  pelon needs to be totally stretched onto the substrate because it tends to loosen when wet.  i thought pelon didn’t stretch out when it got wet.  but it’s like any fabric, it seems.  now it has creases and bubbles, which effects how the wax goes down and what it looks like when it’s burned in.  which is not at all smooth.

another layer, this time a thick one of clear beeswax, because i’m tired of waiting for the wax to build up properly and i’m going to shortcut it with a bunch of wax.  but the trouble with this layer is that i’m going rather easy on the burning in process, hoping that by not hanging around with the light after it goes molten, i might not be encouraging the wax to disappear into the pelon.  or is it going under the pelon?  is the pelon just sort of floating on a thicker and thicker bed of wax?  it’s most frustrating.

the layers might be churning when they’re melting.  i find that when i melt a big pool of wax, sometimes the different layers of pigment start to mix mechanically.  this is bad, because it produces a bland gray area.

what’s not happening is smooth layers of color.  the whole thing is blotchy, no doubt influenced by the creases and bubbles, which seem to  be getting bigger, rather than disappearing under a layer of wax and becoming invisible.

this time i put a layer of clear wax with a little white in it, to veil over the sky and make it more vague and grayed out.  and what’s happening is that i’m not burning the wax all the way in, ie. not making it completely molten when i heat it up.  that leaves areas of ‘raw’ wax, wax that can be spread with a finger after the whole thing cools down.  if you have raw wax, then you don’t have a good seal between layers, you don’t have semitransparency, you don’t have anything but a layer of candle dripping on an otherwise ‘attractive’ painting.

the answer would be to go at it with the heat lamp until that yellow buildup melts and levels.  but at this point i’ve got a waxy buildup on my surface, which is what i want.  and by the time i reheat that unmelted wax, it’s going to be running all over the painting instead of staying in place like a nice little painting.

my frustration level is thru the roof.  at this point i’m trying to proceed with the process simply to find out how hard it will be to get what i want, and since this exercise is all about learning how to use lightweight materials to make a painting, i don’t really need to go thru the fine details with black, which is the next big step to be taken once i’ve got a good background, because black and white are the hardest colors to work with in encaustic (black melts first, white melts last, so you’ve got to be strategic about using them.)

okay, i’ve had enough.  the colors you see in this final stage are because i finally put the painting outside to photograph it.  the previous shots are all taken in the studio under artificial light, and often with a flash, and i’m not an expert in photoshop color correction.  so.

like i said, i’ve had enough.  you can see the ‘raw’ beeswax on the left.  it’s still yellow.  at this point i’ve drawn a finger thru it and realized it was still uncured, un-burned-in.  so i grabbed one side of the pelon and peeled the painting away from the substrate.  on the right is the foamcore i had the pelon pinned to.

the foamcore layer is quite interesting.  the wax sure did go right thru the damned pelon and accumulated on the substrate, which is useless because you can’t see it.  it’s got better color, tho, and these little tiny pinprick holes where the wax didn’t go thru.  you can’t see most of these holes in the picture, but they’re very interesting.  they look like a sky full of stars, which is kind of where i was going with this.  the streaks are what was under the creases and bubbles, and the white parts at the top are where the wax stuck to the back of the pelon and lifted from the foamcore.

so really, a complete failure, and a good thing i’m spending this month testing my materials, or i’d be up shit’s creek.  tomorrow i’m going to home depot for a 4’x8′ sheet of luan, which i will cut into 8x10s and 16x20s, which will fit into my suitcase, and i can (hopefully) happily make paintings from this.  so i scraped both surfaces clean and put the wax into a container with a little orange oil to dissolve it.  i’ll use it as gunge when i make another planet painting.

so that’s it for the pelon on foamcore experiment.  it was a failure.  fine.  but i learned a lot.

now i’m going to turn my attention back to my oil painting, which i’m also trying to come up to speed on.  in a prior post i showed my progress painting a beach at night scene in oil on panel, in this case masonite, for a friend.  i got the first layer on two days ago, and i’m still waiting for it to be tacky enough to proceed with, which had me all panicky the other day – how am i supposed to finish a bunch of oil paintings and pack them up wet to take home?

but i thought about it, and amn’t going to be painting oil on panel during my residency.  i’m going to be painting oil on linen, because i’m taking a roll of 6 yards of linen that i bought ten years ago and have never used.  and i’ve never actually painted on linen, so i got two 8×10 stretched and primed canvases out from jim’s stash and started in on them with another material i’ve never used before, conte crayons.

to illustrate the point i made in my last post, where i said that the trouble with pastels is that when you fix them all the chalk turns clear.  pastellists hate this, but that’s why i don’t like pastels – they’re too pastelly, too pasty.  there’s too much chalk in them and they look chalky.  if i were to do pastels, i would fix the shit out of them to get rid of that awful pastel look.  i’m just a rebel.

so here is the preliminary tonal drawing in unfixed conte crayon.  it’s an upstate new york farmhouse and barn in the misty morning, and it’s quite a nice reference photo that i’d been meaning to tackle for some time.  what i’ve done is the usual, indicating the various shades of light and darkness.  it’s rough, but good enough for me to start with.

now when i fix it with a dilute acrylic sprayed on with a mouth atomizer, you can see where i’ve lost a lot of the brightness.  that’s because the chalk is now transparent, as it should be.  the chalk is a filler.  it would be insanely expensive to make pastels using only pigment and gum tragacanth (the binder), so you need to extend the pigment using an inert filler – a filler that bulks out the pastel without changing its working characteristics.  the fact that there’s chalk in the filler, and that this chalk shows in unfixed paintings, is or should be irrelevant.  but pastellists strive to make the painting look good while it’s being painted, and don’t seem to get that it’s supposed to darken when you fix it, and that you’re supposed to fix it.  so there’s a huge tendency in pastel painting to try and avoid fixing, instead of adjusting to the process by making your colors more intense in preparation for fixing.  but never mind.  i don’t paint in pastel because it’s too pastel and i like sharper colors.

here is the first layer of paint on top of the fixed conte drawing.  i started with chrome green and white, thinned with orange oil (the fat over lean rule, start thinning with turpentine, or in this case orange oil solvent and in the next layers add more oil).  i put this into the grayed out treeline in the distance.  then i mixed up some viridian with a tiny bit of white and put it in the middle ground.  at this point i ran right out of my viridian, so i had to mix up some more.

the tip of the palette knife full of viridian dry pigment, a scrape of the mixture of calcium carbonate and sun thickened linseed oil i’m using as filler, mix that together and add a brushfull of orange oil.  i put this second batch of stronger paint into the foreground.  then i mixed just a little ultramarine blue into the viridian and put it in the middle-ground trees.  and then i came back with  more blue and put it in the shadows of the background trees, and in the foreground in the shadows of the plants.

then i took what little tiny bit of raw umber i still had on my palette from two days before when i did the beach scene, and mixed it into the blue shadows in the trees and on the side of the barn.

i mixed up a teeny tiny bit of burnt sienna and put it in the barn, and then took my white and did the house and the sky.  and since i didn’t feel like mixing up any more black yet, i stuck what was left of the white on the roof of the barn.

now i have my first layer of paint, which needs to dry before i can start in on a second layer.  i expect this to be dry tomorrow when i go down to the studio, because this is how i expect oil paint to react.  but then, i know what to expect when i use paints right out of the tube, and this isn’t one of those times.  this time i have mixed up my own paints, and know every ingredient in them, unlike with tubed paints, where you have no fucking clue what the manufacturer has put into the paint.  there could be driers in the paint, which make it tacky quicker.  there could be a bunch of things in there.

progress on the paintings

i’m tired of doing things the commercially approved way.  i don’t like wearing fashionable clothing, i don’t like being a consumer, i don’t like living in air conditioning.  i also don’t like painting the modern way.  i don’t want to squeeze my paints out of a tube that i don’t know what’s in it, i want to mix everything from scratch.  the way the old masters painted.

of course, this comes with its own pricetag.  the learning curve is what i’m talking about.  there’s a big difference in the way paint goes on when you do it the commercially approved way, and when you mix it up yourself.  all the paint manufacturers go on about how buttery the paint is, how little filler they use.  one manufacturer claims to use no fillers at all.  just pigment and linseed oil.

but when i mix up pigment and linseed oil on my palette, i get a gloppy, thin syrup.  that’s why i abandoned the oil painting experiment i started at the beach.  no body whatsoever.  not without fillers.

above is the oil painting i’m working on.  it’s the beach as seen from our screened-in porch, at night.  it’s on a panel, and i’m mixing up my paints from dry pigments, calcium carbonate (chalk or marble dust) and linseed oil.  as you can see within the glare off the flash, it’s not dry yet.  there are drips.  that’s what i noticed first when i looked at it this morning.  it’s still wet, not just tacky.  there was no way i could continue it this morning.  i just have to let it dry.

my question to jim was what made all the difference?  when i was using oil paint that came in tubes and cost big bucks, i got this thick, buttery consistency right out of the tube, and i hated using any thinner on it at all because i just loved the consistency.  i could put it on and it would stay right where i put it and look great.  when i used the stuff i mixed up at the beach, it slopped and ran and bled out all over the place.

the difference is fillers.  a mixture of pigment and oil, unless you use a shitload of pigment, is going to be syrupy.  so you add an inert filler that disappears into the oil.  did you know that chalk turns transparent when you wet it?  it doesn’t just wash away, it disappears.  how’s that for invisible ink?  can you just see kids making use of sidewalk chalk that way?  this is the reason why pastel artists hate to use fixative.  one pass with the spray can and all the light colors just disappear into the paper substrate.

but in oil paints, it’s great.  i can add a bunch of ground chalk (marble, limestone, calcium carbonate) and make the paint as thick and bodyful as i like, and it’s as simple as that.

so to yesterday’s line of little cups of handmixed paint – titanium white, ultramarine blue, raw umber, and carbon black – i added a little pile of chalk to mix into the paint to thicken it.

perhaps tomorrow i can start putting glazes on, and add a bit of color.

this pitiful example of a painting is the encaustic version of the same scene.  yesterday i got a piece of pelon, cut it to the wrong size (too short to fully wrap around), and with a slight rip in it, and mounted it not exactly tightly.  evidently pelon shrinks.  evidently you have to stretch it when you stretch it, because it loosens way up once you start putting wax down.

i’m learning a lot doing this.  all the mistakes i’m making and all the consequences they will have during the making of this painting, these are all very instructive things i’m doing.  it’s painful.

i’m not liking this method.  for one thing, it’s on pelon.  i should probably try muslin tomorrow, that’s jim’s suggestion.  another reason to hate it is because i’m working with foamcore as the substrate.  it’s stiff, and that’s good for a substrate, but it’s light, and i can feel a dent already where i have put the wax of the ocean, that greenish horizontal stripe in the middle-ish of the painting.

pelon seems to be highly absorbent.  i still, after many layers, don’t have the shine of wax.  my layers so far:

1. the original blocking in of color – an old grayed blue from the palette, the greenishness of palette scrapings dissolved into orange oil, and the dark brown of raw umber on the bottom third where all the vegetation is going to be.

2. a layer of beeswax with only a veil of titanium white in it, over the sky and the sea.

3. another veil of white in the middle, over the lower sky and the upper sea, and a layer of brown microcrystalline wax and raw umber over the upper sky and the lower sea.

4. a thin layer of cobalt blue over the sky and sea, making it act as a transparent pigment, which it isn’t when used thickly.

5. another veil of white over the entire sky and sea.

6. and another veil of white.

i burned in each layer, and watched as the wax melted on top of the pelon, turn completely molten, and then sink into the pelon, leaving only the texture of the fabric, which is a mat of small fibers.

so this sucks.  how much wax do i have to use to begin to get a wax buildup that i can buff?

i’ve had that problem before, when i tried to do a very persnickety little encaustic painting of a greek orthodox icon over cotton.  i ended up scorching the fabric, and the fine details of the faces and clothing was very difficult with all that texture to bump over.

i’m sorry, i want a smooth surface to start my encaustic paintings on.  but masonite‘s too damned heavy to carry in my luggage.  i want luan panels, but i don’t want to go to an art supply store and pay retail for the damned things.

i’ll try the muslin next, and go back to home depot to see if they don’t sell luan.

i’m having real trouble representing the night with its most subtle colors, but maybe i can get to that later.  right now i’m tired, and think i’ll try going back to bed.