watercolor on clayboard

another experiment with my art materials.  this time jim did me up some homemade clayboard, which means mixing kaolin clay with rabbit skin glue (instead of using marble dust) and painting it on like gesso.  he made one of my new luan panels into a clayboard surface, and i just sat down and made a watercolor out of it.  7 3/4 by 8 inches.  so it’s basically life size.

watercolor not on paper?  watercolor on board?  i scoffed when they had the samples of clayboard out at binders.  it reminded me of watercolor on bristol board, which i think sucks.

but since jim had made the clayboard by hand, and it turned out so smooth and shiny, i couldn’t resist, and so sat down to paint the front porch, as a present for my sister.  which sister, since i’ve promised both of them, and my daughter, one of my watercolors?  the sister who just was sitting there soaking up the 90 degree heat a couple of weeks ago.  it’s going to be consolation for my giving her the marie’s fountain painting (below) to keep only as long as it takes me to get over there and take it away from her to give to its rightful owner.

well, one painting is 20-something inches high, and the other barely rounds out 8 inches.  but she’ll like the one of the porch and too bad about the other one.

clayboard is very absorbent.  jim put 7 coats of kaolin gesso on it, and then scraped it with the edge of a razor blade to smooth it down.  i hit it with a piece of fine wet-dry sandpaper, and then started drawing on it with a pencil.

clayboard is very smooth.  it’s delightful to run my fingers over.  the clay settles down into the surface even better than calcium carbonate – chalk, marble dust – and makes s smoother and more luxurious surface.

it’s highly absorbent.  run a sopping brush over it, and it’ll leave a puddle of water, but then watch the surface suck it in.  it doesn’t evaporate, it gets drawn into the surface of the gesso.  so your brushstroke stays where you put it, and a lot of the usual softening strokes you do with watercolor won’t exactly work here.

i can soften an edge with clear water, but i have to soften and then loosen and then spread the edge, because the edge is somewhere beneath the surface of the clayboard.  that’s how it seems.

at any rate, clayboard is excellent when you want to do detail.  it won’t work for large, wet-in-wet expressions of color and movement, unless you aren’t going to want to rework the stroke or do a lot of adjustments while it’s still wet, because it stays wet about as long as chinese shrimp crackers do.  (ever put your tongue on a shrimp cracker?  those fried pork rind-looking things in chinese restaurants?  don’t.  they’re like some tree mushrooms, and will suck all the moisture out of your tongue and keep sucking.

detail.  clayboard is great for detail.  because it’s so absorbent, i don’t know why because, just because, the strokes you put down stay down, stay sharp and beautiful and pointy.  it’s the reworking that causes trouble.  because with clayboard, everything you put on it will lift.  even staining pigments.  the trick is not to overwork it.

it’s a bit like egg tempera, so jim tells me.  they both dry really quickly, allowing for almost no fucking with.  they’re both really good for persnickety paintings.  you can do a million glazes, but you’ve got to be careful not to lift colors that are down.

another thing that happens differently on clayboard than on paper is that the colors go on in actual layers.  with watercolor, every time you put on a glaze of some color, you’re dissolving all the colors beneath it back into the mix.  apparently not so with clayboard.

this means that the painting remains transparent as long as you’re using transparent pigments.  this gives the painting remarkable snap and depth.

normally in watercolor, ultramarine is my strongest dark, and if i mix it with raw umber it approaches black in strength but doesn’t deaden and overpower like black does on paper.  all this is after years learning how to make strong darks without creating mud.

but on clayboard, something about how it absorbs the pigments, but the colors don’t turn to mud the way they do on paper.  i can put on a layer of blue to shadow the glider seat, but it won’t darken.  it just turns blue.  so i tried to put on a wash of raw umber, and it turned dusty and opaque on me.  umber is not an opaque color.  neither is ultramarine.  but on clayboard they don’t darken the way they do on paper.  they don’t seem to mix, or something.

on clayboard, if i want a clear dark, i have to use black.

this is anathema in watercolor.  but it’s the rule with silk dyes.  if i want a shade of a color, i have to add black in silk work.  if i don’t use black, i won’t get a dark color.  period.  so you learn to use black in silk.  but you leave the whites, just like in watercolor, and many of the techniques are the same.

watercolor on clayboard is supersaturated.  the blues were intense blues, like on silk.  not muted blues as in an oil painting.  the whole thing looked garish.

so the next morning, to finish the painting, i intended to merely glaze a bunch of neutral darks over most of the painting, and sign it.

it took all afternoon.  and what a lovely afternoon it was, all cool and drizzly, with a fine breeze to dry the sweat off my brow as i sat out on the porch and painted my picture.

i noticed as i was washing an earth green over the cobalt wall, trying to tone down all those bright colors, that the lines of the siding were fading.  this happened even more with the next wash.  now, i wasn’t exactly letting the board dry before putting on the next wash, just putting it aside until the pools absorbed in.  so i guess the surface was still wet when i went over it with another wash.  and i guess that made it lift.

so, if you get the surface wet, you can lift anything.  even if you don’t want to.  the lesson here is to leave out the lining and details like that until the surface is the way you want it, don’t outline shit before you’ve finished messing with it.

that’s why the right hand side of the painting looks so rough.  jim disagrees with me on this point, tho.  he says that the scratchy effect is from the underlying gesso not being smooth enough, while i think i’ve gone and raised the grain of the wood underneath.  we have yet to ask the relevant archive questions from our favorite website of art experts.

altogether, i’m very happy watercolor painting on luan plywood clayboard.  it’s cheap as dirt when you make it yourself, and the results are bright and snappy.  i think i’m going to paint a few watercolors with it.  and that’ll get me back painting watercolors, which everyone keeps telling me to do.


thumbs up – more increments

today, the baby was off with the other side of the family, and i could sit and work – or sit and not work – to my heart’s content.  so i spent happy hours sitting there staring at my painting, drowning in cups of coffee.

i started on the front cake plate.  that represents my hardest bit, and i like to get that out of the way first.  but really all i did was to put in an line representing the left side of the cover where it bisects the waiter’s head.

then i moved to the front of the counter and got the receipt and rolled up silverware.  then i got the coffee maker some, putting in the red highlights and painting in the cover of the filter box.  and kept on with the red, splashing it liberally (see how small those threadlike reds are?) over the counter underneath the coffee warmer.

i had a particular problem, one i’ve encountered a few times in this painting.  between the edge of the coffee warmer and the stack of bread is a white thingie, and there’s what looks like a milk steamer arm that you’d find on an espresso maker, poking into the white space with its hard-edged metal nozzle.  so i spent quite a while trying to resolve that.

this makes my eyes hurt.  i really should use a tripod…

i had originally left a white space at the right edge of there the stack of bread is, because i read the white thingie into the drawing twice.  i do that.  and i know at the time that it’s only going to have to be redone – at a cost – later.  a co-employee, many ranks uphill from me, once told me that my attention to detail sucked.  he was right, of course.  i should have been an abstract expressionist.

you can see the spout in the picture above.  i had to restate the shadow under the breadplate, and put some burnt sienna into the wooden bread board (further defining the cloth that hangs over the edge (but i can see now that it’s wrong and will have to be redone)).  then i went a little nuts with the red, like i said.  but suddenly i could see red all over the reference photo, and it’s when i start to paint what i see that i paint well.

there are two schools of thought on this.  the one says you have to forget what something’s supposed to look like, and just paint what you see.  and the other says you have to inform what you see with what you know is there.  i have learned from bitter experience that i really should follow the latter path.  but i love the flowing feeling when i paint what i see without thought.

after that i went back toward the middle of the painting, and mostly finished the creams and things in the front of the painting, and got the bottles and jars in front of the waiters to the left.  and then i noticed another problem, and got out the toothbrush to carefully scrub the place underneath the left-hand waiter’s left arm, because i just now figured out what it represented.

the area under the one waiter’s arm is actually the other waiter’s two hands, one holding a ticket and the other writing something with a white pen.  it fills the space under the one waiter’s arm, but i had drawn it in about half that size.

the scrubbed area didn’t get very light.  in fact, it’s pretty dull.  and so the highlights have to be very dull as well.  so i just outlines the fingers with red and put a few dabs of sienna on the planes of the hand and left it at that.  it’s good enough, and i probably don’t have to do anything more to it.

then the last thing i did was to put some color on the waiter on the left.  burnt sienna, and some red on her face and neck.

in this way i’ve whittled down what needs to be done to finish this painting.  it’s going nice and fast, mainly because i’m trying not to overwork it, and soon i will be done.

and then – what to do with my palette?  it’s a giant plastic palette with wells for a couple of dozen watercolors, and each well is filled with as much of a tube as i could squeeze out.  i’m running out of burnt umber, it’s true, but when i’m done with this painting i’ll have this massive palette full of paint, and no real desire to use it again.

i’ve moved to making my own paints, and i don’t want to use someone else’s mix that is anyway many years old.  i want to make my paints every day, or every painting, or at least every time i run out of paint.  so i’m thinking maybe i’ll give my palette to my kid, along with my entire collection of watercolors in tubes.  this is an important step.  she already has my travel watercolor kit, which my dad gave me when i was her age.  maybe she’s not enough of an artist yet to use it, and maybe it’d be better in the studio where jim and i can watch over it (instead of it getting pitched in a hurry when she ducks rent and leaves town, kind of thing).  we’ll see.  but the next watercolor i do is going to be all made from scratch from dry pigments and gum arabic.  i’m looking forward to it.  it’s going to be a learning curve, but i love a challenge.

thumbs up – slash and dash

looking at the unfinished painting, my eye is distracted by the top and bottom of the picture plane.  the stools and counter are only under construction, and the ceiling is a few major shades too light, and these incompletenesses make it difficult to see how to proceed.

so, where i would normally save the large washes of darks for the end, to tie everything together, i’m finding that i have to do a lot of the slashing and dashing at this point instead.  i’m sure i’ll have to do more in the end, but right now it’s kind of anticlimactic because you want the flash and dash to make an impression on your audience – a how did she do that – and at this point it’s just one more area of darks that you can’t really tell has been worked on.  oh well, so much for drama.

today’s (yesterday’s) work just gave me more millions of tiny things to do.  here i’ve refined the reflections on the kick panel and the shadows on the stools.  i’m trying to retain the highlights on the vertical slats of the counter panel, but you can see how little luck i’m having over the top of the reds.  i’m still going to have to scrape those lines white and then tone them back down before i’m done.

after filling in more of the details of the counter kick panel and stools, slow incremental work, i got to take out my large squirrel mop, wet down the ceiling, and start charging in color.  i wet the right half first, using clear water, and then put in lots of burnt sienna, then into that i charged a bunch of burnt umber, and then a little ultramarine blue (which darkens unbelievably well), and then some moonglow.

it’s hard to see it in the shot above, but the dark mess in the middle is just about as close to mud as i can come and get away with it.  it doesn’t show well here, but when pigments turn to mud they get a heavy, lifeless appearance that really detracts from the painting.  this means i have to stop now, in this area at least.

over on the left side, i did the same thing, but a heavier application of burnt sienna and nowhere near as much blue and black.

one interesting thing here.  you can see some splotches in the left hand part of the ceiling that i just painted.  they aren’t paint spots, they showed up when the paper was wet and didn’t go away when it dried.  that means they’re some kind of damage or contamination of the paper.  since this painting has been variously in my portfolio or thumbtacked to my studio wall for the past six years, it’s been exposed to everything from grease to smoke to mold, and this is the result.  stained paper.  mold spots.  areas that once wet, won’t dry, like the little circles of what should be white on the right side of the ceiling.  they were supposed to be recessed lights shining out of the ceiling, and i carefully painted around them every time, but with the paper in the condition it’s in, the wetness spread into the dry area, and the pigment followed it.  this also happened around the bottom of the light fixture in the middle, and i had to seriously sponge and blot to get the burnt sienna to fade back out.

this is a conservation problem.  i can’t find the reference at amien.org right now, but these little spots are why you keep watercolor paper in a quiet, dry, dark place away from contaminants.

anyway, in this case they’re just going to add some texture.  but the tendency of the water to crawl into dry spaces is really annoying.

here’s the whole thing at this stage.  by filling in the whites and lights in the floor and ceiling, i’ve managed to show just how much work the middle needs.  in fact, all the details that will make the painting are in the middle of the painting, and they are all the things i’ve been avoiding by doing the periphery first.  so now i have to go back and tackle them.

the first things, i think, will be the cake plates, because they’re the things that’re going to give me the most trouble.  then i can finish the cook’s stove and the counter behind kavanique next, and the stuff on the shelves to the right, and then get the stuff on the counter in the middle, then finish the stools and tone down the counter kick panel, and find somewhere to sign the damned thing.  the frame will probably have to be rather massive, and with this kind of complexity it’s going to need a wide mat.  i’ll be gluing and varnishing it as i have been with my watercolors, but i think i’ll frame it behind glass at first, because i’m planning on hanging it in the diner itself, and seeing if anyone wants to pay loads of money for it.  they won’t, of course, but they’ll probably be happy to hang it for a few months.

thumbs up – progress

i thought i’d show in more than usual detail all the myriad little details that go into a watercolor of the type i used to do.  and a little about why i no longer do them like this.  i mean, i think it’s self evident why i don’t do them like this any more.

i’ve chosen sloppiness over anal-retentiveness, the artistic lifestyle over the corporate, being a prophet rather than a priest.  and it’s a stretch going back, even for a short time.

this painting needs so much work, and it’s all subtle except for the splash of darks at the end, which is where i have to screw up my courage to let go and let the fairies paint it.

unlike  my bar paintings, i had to take a million photos of the restaurant and go away to paint it, because it’s too busy a place to sit and paint during the not-busy times.  there just aren’t any.  it’s a lines out the door kind of place.  here are a few of the photos.  you can see that they’re from all over the front of the restaurant, all sorts of different angles, all sorts of different perspectives.  no wonder i drew it with two different vanishing points, with reference photos like these.  but you do what you can with your materials, even if it means ripping a half-finished painting in half in order to complete it at all.  better than tossing it in the garbage, even half-finished.

kavanique is the star of the thumbs up, and she’s got a unique style.  it’s absolutely important to get her likeness, and i was so amazed when i got her face right the first time that i stopped working on the painting and left it lying fallow for the past six years.

when i came back to the painting a couple of weeks ago, i noticed that kavanique’s hair is way small for her head, and so i went in with a pencil and extended the white space reserved for her hair.  you can see it as a dark line to the left above the white space of her hair.

this detail gives you some idea of how little it takes to make a readable gesture.  i’ve got a bunch of splotches on her hands, and from a distance it reads like fingers fumbling with change.  the artistry of art.  it’s all fake, all symbol, all metaphor.  that’s why i like it.

there’s not that much to do to this painting on the face of it, just a million little tiny things.  so i sat there for awhile dithering about the huge amount of work, and then suddenly noticed a spot that was way off, reached for a brush to correct it, and i was off.

first i put the patter of red bricks on the kitchen floor by dumping a glaze of burnt umber over the red that was already there.  that worked okay, so i decided to put in the dark foreground behind the stools, and used burnt umber and ultramarine along with some moonglow, a mixed black.  i only used black in the lower left of the rightmost area.  i also painted in the waiter’s jeans.

and then i noticed the reflections in the apron around the counter.  because of the funny way my eyes focus, i never saw the reflection of the metal sides of the stools until i turned the reference photo sideways, so the lines ran up and down instead of horizontally.  held sideways, the photo shows a wonderful distorted reflection of all those seats, as well as the front door, and the red carpet on the floor.

but, of course, when i went to start the painting some six years ago, i just put them in where i thought it was best, and completely missed the likeness.  it’s frankly better to paint the damned thing upside down so you DON”T KNOW what you’re looking at.  i make huge glaring mistakes whenever i think i have it figured down and aren’t letting the fairies paint it for me.

here you can see everything i did over the last few days.  it’s not really noticeable.

i put in the hair on the woman on the left, and on kavanique to the right.  i laid in the floor on both sides of the counter, and penciled in the reflections on the metal counter apron.  i drew in the stools and their reflections.  i put red reflections on the counter apron, softened with clear water.  in some cases these reflections are at odds with the reflections i stuck down some six years ago, and that’s tough; i’ll go over them with dark washes anyway.

when i was done putting in the red on the counter apron, i had to go back in and try to erase the vertical lines where there will be lights when i’m finished with it.  there’s supposed to be a white reflective line going vertically right next to those dark lines, and as you can see there’s no white lines.  they didn’t lift when i hit scrubbed them with my kolinsky sable brushes.  the lines are too small to scrub with a toothbrush, so i’m going to have to figure something else out.  perhaps scratching thru the paper once all the darks are in.  it’s a crude technique, and i’m not very practiced in it.  but the idea of putting on white paint is breaking one of those rules that i believe in wholeheartedly. anathema, i say, guache is ugly.

one place where i could lift the color was kavanique’s hair.  i had painted it a solid mass of black, but when i looked carefully at the source picture under extreme magnification and after having lightened the hell out of the scan, i noticed all sorts of light and dark streaks where one strand of dreadlock crossed another.  so i took the blowup down to the studio and used my smallest sable brush, water, and a blotting towel, and lifted the black where i needed to.  and then i took the toothbrush to the dark shadow behind her head, because it’s the same black as her hair, and that needs adjusting so it doesn’t look like she’s got big hair as well as dreads.

in all, a million little changes, and no really big changes visible – meaning only i can tell.  but these are the changes that finish a painting, and they need to be done.

except, following jim’s advice, i’m looking constantly to make sure i’m only doing the minimum needed to finish this painting.  i left a bunch of stuff undone on marie’s fountain, but that’s okay because it looks good as it is.  i’ll probably know when i can stop messing with the thumbs up.  but it won’t be today, as the baby is loose and i’ve got to watch him.  that means more sitting on the computer and less wandering around the studio.

such is life.  and it’s a good life, too.

marie’s fountain – choices

there is in the life of every painting, a time when real, lasting choices have to be made, and there’s no going back from there.  in this case, it’s time to completely ruin its value as a watercolor by gluing it down to a board and putting a coat of varnish over it.

ooh, anathema, you cry.  intense discomfort, anxiety and fear overcome you.  why, it’s just wrong.

yeah, well.  tough.

you may notice that the photos accompanying this blog post aren’t of the marie’s fountain painting.  that’s because i found it necessary to perform a couple of experiments before taking the final steps quite so irrevocably.   bear with me.

i was thinking about it this afternoon – the first time i’d been able to spend any time in the studio for about a week.  jim and i had cut the panel a couple of days ago, and i was standing around downstairs waiting for a couple of coats of black gesso to dry on it.  i was putting on a couple of layers of black, and then i was mixing up some burnt umber and ultramarine blue and put it on over that, to enrich the black.  and then since we didn’t have any green earth acrylic mixed up, i took some matte medium and a couple of knives-full of terre verte pigment (and some chrome green, which is opaque), and mixed it up as a final glaze.  this went on streaky, because i am lousy at mixing, and don’t really care.  i actually liked the streaks, so i made sure to use up all the green acrylic mix painting the edges where it might actually show once the paper was down.

but i hate acrylic.  it’s so dead.  it smells funny.  it’s lifeless and dull.  yuk.  this is the part i like the least, the coating out and sticking on part.  i’m not yet comfortable with it, and the plasticity, the fakeness of the medium really bothers me.  like using some sort of fiberglass that you just know is breaking down your liver.  (this is me who chooses to breathe hot orange oil fumes instead of doing encaustic the ‘right’ way by overheating beeswax and ventilating my studio with a vacuum attachment over my nose.  selective squeamishness.)

i was actually thinking – why not use wax to stick the painting down and varnish it?  marie’s husband keeps bees, after all, and would appreciate a topcoat of shiny, fragrant beeswax over the painting.  wouldn’t he?  i was in the midst of talking to jim about this when i thought, well, i need to experiment with this one before i decide.

i’d just been regarding the 8″ strip i’d torn off of the thumbs-up-diner painting i’m trying to finish now.  i was looking at it sitting on top of the trashcan and thinking what a shame it was that i was fixing to crumple up this fine watercolor paper and toss it in the garbage.  i should use the back of it, or something.

so i snatched up the paper, found a piece of hardboard (masonite, in this case quite literally, even tho they haven’t made masonite in years – that’s how old our stock of panels is), and got out the acrylic matte medium and the jar of beeswax and orange oil.

if i were going to mount a painting, i’d use a lot more care than this.  but i was actually happy for the excuse to rip up paper and slap acrylic on it and smoosh it down with my fingers and coat it with ooky acrylic medium with my fingers.  it was gooky, i had to use a paper towel, and i got acrylic medium all over my palette knife.

i guess it’s time to explain the picture above.  the top half of the photo shows strips of paper towel marked with black where i had been coating out the panel.  on top of this in the right hand corner is a bunch of torn-up strips of watercolor paper.  the section on top is the continuation of the torn up piece on the bottom left.  you can see the edges of the unpainted framed picture, and the shirt on some guy’s back.

the bottom half of the photo shows the board, which is coated out with gray acrylic gesso.  on the right is the top part of the painting strip, the ceiling with the yellow clock and a light fixture hanging beside it.  that’s the part i glued down with acrylic using my fingers and a lot of goop.  the left side looks cloudy, and that’s because it has a fresh coat of wax over it.  i carved some out of the jar with my palette knife, scraped it over the back of the painting and then put it down and took a brayer to it (a rubber roller to press out the air bubbles).  then i carved out some more wax and smeared it on the surface, and tried my damnedest to smooth it out with my fingers, but since i never took the time to thin the wax out to a workable consistency, i deserved the way it soaped up and flaked.  it reminded me of the way wax acts when you whip it for funky candle effects.

the first thing i noticed was that nothing i was doing to the watercolor paper was causing the least little bit of running.  when you put something wet down onto watercolor, you expect the colors to run.  but there was no movement at all from putting sloppy acrylic down, and no movement under the wax either.  perhaps gum arabic doesn’t react with wax, fine, but acrylic is water-based and you’d think watercolor would move right away.  but, like i said, nothing.  perhaps it’s because this painting is so old.  gum arabic hardens more with time, and some of the watercolors i’ve had sitting out on the palette for fifteen years or so just won’t dissolve up anymore.  so maybe that’s it.

the second thing i noticed was that i should have used bleached beeswax.  you can see the difference in the whites.  the torn edges of the piece on the right are white white, and so is the face of the clock and the light fixture.  on the left hand piece, the whites are yellowed.  it’s not a whole lot, but it’s significant.

on this second picture, you can see the results.  just not very well.

the third thing i noticed was that it takes so much longer to put on and burn in a coat of wax than it does to slap a coat of acrylic on both sides and smoosh it down.  the right side, the side i used the acrylic on, was down, stuck, and dried in a matter of minutes.  but it showed brushstrokes, or in this case, fingermarks.  there’s no reason to have brushstrokes on a watercolor.  aesthetically it’s kind of offensive.  that’s been the trouble with the two watercolors i’ve mounted and varnished so far.  the varnishes i’ve used have been put on with a brush, and it has left brushstrokes.  the answer to this is to thin the acrylic way down and use an atomizer to apply it.  but i haven’t done that yet, partly out of fear of violating the manufacturer’s directions on the uv topcoat i’ve been using (which in general call for way more than is necessary just so you have to go out and buy more).

it took a good half an hour to burn in the wax on the left piece of paper.  i use a heat lamp, so burning in is always tedious, slow but sure, and i had to go back several times to melt out drips and lumps.  i was worried about scorching the paper most of all.  this is because when i did an encaustic on top of canvas mounted on board, i ended up scorching the cotton of the canvas.  and watercolor paper is made of cotton.  but tho the paper absorbed some of the wax in spots, it didn’t scorch the paper, or change the colors.

the funny thing was that the wax melted gast or slow, according to the underlying color.  (i totally expect this in encaustic, where the pigment is mixed in with the wax which you then melt.  but this was a finished watercolor and dry as a bone, and i didn’t expect dried pigment to have a similar effect.  tho, because it’s all a matter of albedo, it’s obvious that it should have.  it just surprised me, and seemed even more pronounced than when i’m just burning in pigmented wax.)  where there was black, as in the area near the roof, around the frame, and the guy’s hair, the wax melted the fastest and it seemed the watercolor would run because it was molten everywhere there was black, and still translucent yellow wax everywhere else.  but tho the wax was molten, the underlying granularity of the black was accentuated but didn’t go anywhere.

when wax is molten, it’s clear.  you can see right down into it, and everything looks just as wet and intense as it can.  when the wax cools, it becomes translucent again, and you lose some of the wetness, the clarity, the depth.  it retains enough of these properties to be intriguing as hell, but the only one who sees the clarity and depth is the artist.  the viewer never sees this, and it’s a pity, because this is wax at its most magical.

there was one place where the wax holding the painting onto the board melted, and ran out underneath the paper, which began to lift off.  but while it was still molten i stuck it down with a finger, and it stayed just fine.  once it hardened, i could see that the yellowness was much abated, but still obvious, the colors were a bit muted but not at all runny, and the surface of the paper wasn’t entirely even and i would have to go back and cover spots with the necessary re-melting and all the trouble it can be to keep the melt lines smooth.  else that or scrape it with a razor blade.

because i still wasn’t sure about the non-running part of all this, i took that piece of paper that had the continuation of the picture frame and the guy’s shirt, ripped that in half, and dunked the top strip into a basin of water for five seconds.  you can see above that nothing ran at all, even after dunking, and this isn’t usual, so it must be the age of the painting.  which means i’m going to have to seal my freshly painted watercolor surface before i even glue it down to the board.

what have i decided to do?  i don’t know yet.  jim is pretty strong on the idea that i should mount it with acrylic, since it’s more permanent than wax, which might slip a little on a hot day, tho it would have to be over 100 inside the house, and we’re the only fools who’d stand for that (and our encaustics are fine, thanks).  and he’s pretty insistent that i coat out the surface with acrylic before putting anything on top, just in case.   all the tiny details and sharp-focussed work i did on marie’s fountain, it shouldn’t be ruined by a careless top coat.  and i agree with that.

so tomorrow the testing i have to do is to go back to the right side of the board and put a coat of wax over the acrylic-coated paper, burn that in, and see what it looks like.  if i like the look of the wax on top of the acrylic, then i can proceed with it on the real painting.  and if not, then i can continue to refine the acrylic coating until i’m happy with the no-brushstrokes look i’m aiming for.  and then i can put it all together.  but i really need to think about doing it in wax.  it’s so appropriate.

project – let’s finish another painting

here’s another project i put aside, thinking i’d never finish it.  this seems to be a year of tying up loose ends, so i’m going to try to complete all the unfinished watercolors i have laying around the studio.  wish me luck.

this one isn’t quite ten years old, as was marie’s fountain.  the set-up shots for this one were developed in 2004, so that’s only six years.  fine.

it’s a watercolor of one of the famous local diners in my part of atlanta.  i’ve done the insides of various establishments over the years, starting out with a series of “the pubs of dublin” and marching forth from there.  altho a diner is a pale kind of pub indeed, it’s a place where people have fond memories.  the thumbs up is actually a famous diner, mainly for its chief waiter, kavinique, who is a simply wonderful person.  people come from miles away just to tip her after their meals.

so about six years ago, when i was living around the corner at studioplex, i ate at the thumbs up whenever i had spare money (hah).  and it was a cool place, and i always wanted to paint it.  so i took a roll of film of the place one morning, got everybody right where i wanted them (because they happened to be there at the time), and started my painting.

and it was going great, for awhile.  i’d been painting in oils for several years at this point, and had a nice loose style that i was able to transfer into watercolor.  so i started the correct way, lights to darks.  this worked so well in marie’s painting, but it’s so rare that i do things the correct way, so i immediately started putting in the darkest darks.

and here’s the problem you run into with watercolors.  if your preliminary drawing isn’t right, you’re going to have a badly realized final painting.  and in this case i whipped out the drawing and got right to work laying in local color and dark black lines.

at first i had a ball.  starting on the kitchen side, everything i put in was good, and i remember sitting back admiring my work a bunch of times while painting this.  the work proceeded smoothly, and i started gathering my confidence and courage for the final splash and dash.  but first, i had to fill in the customers and the rest of the shop.

that’s when it started dragging.  i kept having trouble with the customers.  their proportions weren’t right.  something was wrong.

at this point i started getting frightened.  i ceased using darks, and tried to sneak up on things again.  because there’s two ways to paint.  you can get inspired and dash it all on there in a few masterful strokes.  or you can pussyfoot around and build subtlety upon obscurity until you have the ghost of the shadow of the final result you want.  at this point, as i said, i started building shadows.  thus the non-face of the blond waiter in the middle.  and the black customer’s head and face on the left.  and kavanique counting change at the register.

it’s when i finished sneaking up on kavanique’s face that i walked away from the painting.  i looked at it when i’d finished laying it in and thought, wow it’s her.  and i was afraid to do any more.  that’s all i did for years.  never touched another watercolor (except for a bunch of estuary paintings, a quickie baby portrait while the tyke slept in her basket, a couple of still lives,  a landscape or two).

and why did i walk away from such a promising painting, one which someone would most certainly buy?  it was because while sneaking up on the details of the unfinished painting, i realized what the fatal flaw of my painting was, the thing i couldn’t correct by shadowing or scrubbing, the reason the customer part bogged down so thoroughly.

it’s because my perspective sucks.

you don’t have to look at it very carefully to decide that the plane of the kitchen side (the right side, where all the counter lines converge into a point above the horizon, off in the distance), is way different from the vanishing point of the dining room side, which actually points downward.  once you notice this, the painting becomes impossible.  you’d need stairs to make that kind of perspective happen.  so i walked away.

these are the things you’re supposed to check and recheck and check again in the mirror to be sure you have exactly right before you put even the first pastel hue onto the paper.  a good drawing is essential.  and my mistake was that i mistook enthusiasm for mastery.  because it felt wonderful to dash out the drawing of something so complex and have all the ends meet up.  so i didn’t look at it for several days to see what it needed.  nor did i turn it upside down and sideways and look at it reversed like i should have.  not even that.  i was in a hurry to paint.

i don’t usually like rules, but this is one i like to follow.  do a good drawing.  a good drawing is the basis of a good painting.  sounds simplistic.  most truth does.  also most bullshit.  so never mind.

once the decision was made (i can’t finish it like this), it was an easy thing to use the pole in the middle of the room as the dividing line.  i took out a metal ruler and bent the paper over it at that line, creased it back and forth a few times, burnished it with the metal ruler, and then tore the paper carefully into two pieces discarding the left side.  take that, gordian knot.

while i was at it, i squared up the painting, which took some doing, as when i start a painting i don’t give a damn if it’s square or not, and it never is.  i trimmed all the white edges left by the masking tape when i painted on it the first time, and started in on the places i’d avoided painting in originally, only because i couldn’t tell what they were.  i had the same problem with marie’s painting.  anything i didn’t understand in the photo reference got left for later.  and later is now.

so kavanique’s head isn’t big enough, so i pencilled that in.  i realize at a glance now that what i thought was a bowed-out ceiling treatment is instead a bowed-in barrel ceiling, which changes the meaning of the shadows.  the perspective lines of the shelves on the lower right, in the kitchen; well, they’re almost painfully off, but there’s nothing i can do about that except to scrub and start over, and i’m not going to do a lot of scrubbing on this painting simply because it’s already gone too far for that.

it’s going to take a lot of work to unify this painting.  much of it is going to get a lot darker.  most of the work is going to be painstaking and subtle from this point on, simply because most of the work has already been done.  i’ve got a few little places to scrub, a couple of places to redraw, lots of glazes and tiny details.

i understand the reference photos a lot better after six years away from them, that much is clear.  details i had no clue about, and drew in wrong because of it, i can instantly recognize and instantly see how the painting is going to have to be fudged to make it look correct.  maybe nobody will notice, but it’s important to me at this moment.

i don’t know if i’m going to be able to replicate the style i was using at the time.  it’s a good thing i did marie’s fountain first, because i could ramp up to the wild abandon place where i finished the painting in a few strokes.  in this painting, since i’ve done everything else, there’s only the wild abandon place, the flinging of brushes full of  paint.  so there’s no ramping up.  i have to jump into it.

maybe tomorrow.

marie’s fountain – framing decisions

now that my painting is (mostly) done, i have to decide how to frame it.  it’s traveling in checked luggage, so the dimensions are critical.  at first jim tried to get me to reserve the white edge that’s been underneath masking tape all these years.  there was tape on three sides, and the forth side was half painted in partly because i never mark my boundaries very well, and always go over them.

i tried to retain the white edge, i really did.  took a ruler and masked the painting off at the cut line, then scrubbed the hell out of the paper.  but all those greens, all that phthalo.  i could only get the paper to greenish, not anywhere near the whites that were under the masking tape.

so, screw the white edge.  i didn’t want a white edge to begin with.  i wanted black.  dark black around the painting.  jim thought maybe it should be  mid-gray.  so the photo above is trying out both of these ideas.  the left side really is black, even tho it’s very washed out in the picture.  and the mid-gray is the toned ground of the microwave with apples painting that i put aside to finish marie’s painting.  the mid gray works okay, but i’m still liking black.  as for the frame, you can see on top that i’ve picked one with some gold, to attract the eye, and some green, to harmonize with the painting.  it’s a good two inches, the moulding, and that might be a problem, because the painting itself is 21 1/2 by 12.  so a two inch mat area, a two inch frame, that’s four inches on each side, we’re looking at 26×16.  that’s the inside of a large bag.  fortunately my sister is taking the painting back with her, and she’s traveling first class, and has free baggage allowance for three large bags.  aren’t we lucky (the entire family is ordering stuff for her to take back with her, isn’t she lucky?)

once she told me the dimensions of the inside of her bag, however, i decided that maybe i didn’t like two inches of mat.  if you look at the left side of the picture above, you can see how the green stripe in the frame is close to the size of the mat opening between the frame and the painting.  and i don’t really like that.  i want either a much larger or much smaller opening.  at this point i got out a plain brown stick of moulding, also about 2″ wide, and put it on the right to see if i maybe didn’t want the green stripe.  but i really like what the green and gold do for the painting, and aren’t inspired by the plain brown at all.  at this point i got out a very thin piece of moulding, maybe 5/8″ wide, and ran it across the bottom of the painting, leaving only 1/4″ of opening between the frame and the  painting.  and i think i like this well enough to proceed.

i’m going to be using a very thin moulding, very close to the size of the painting, and i’m going to paint the mat the deepest green-black i can make (meaning a first coat of black acrylic, then a coat of burnt umber and ultramarine, and then a nice glaze of green earth).

jim and i will cut the board tomorrow.  he found an old piece of masonite for me, and i measured it today;  we’ll cut it tomorrow and then i’ll start looking at the painting one more time to make sure i’m done with it before i destroy its value as a true watercolor completely.