Friday, January 25, 2013

large and small

Sometimes I get myself tied up in knots over questions that, in the end, seem pretty simple. Much of my thinking in the past couple of weeks has been almost Gordian in nature. It all started with a simple question from a friend to whom I was describing the challenges posed by working small (I was working on some 6" x 8" panels). What, she asked, is the difference between your small pieces and your large ones?

How are small pieces different from large (other than the obvious fact of size)? I had never stopped to ask, at least in terms of my present work. There are clearly two parts to the question: differences in process, and differences in product. It was the former with which I had been concerned, but the latter came to mind almost immediately.

Researcher that I am (25 years as a librarian doesn't fade quickly), I turned to my favorite sources of art wisdom to see what they had to say. Robert Genn has addressed size in his twice-weekly newsletter, but from the opposite end of the process: choosing the right size of canvas for the subject matter. In my case, the subject matter (such as it is) grows out of the process, and there is no predefinition to determine what size of panel to use.

I then searched Rebecca Crowell's informative blog for related discussions. In February 2008, she addressed the topic of size:

When I paint something large, I love the sense of being surrounded by the paint...while the challenge is to make something that justifies its own scale. I feel there needs to be something monumental about the piece, that will hold up in its largeness, over time and repeated viewings. 
Very small paintings have to be intriguing enough to withstand close-up viewing -- to have presence though occupying little physical space. It's really pleasurable for me to give due importance to slight shifts in color or texture, or to a few lines or some interesting mark -- and to bring that appreciation to viewers, whose faces will likely be inches rather than feet away from the work. 
In between these extremes are paintings (with) medium dimensions (30”x28”). I think the challenge here is to rise above what seems an ordinary or expected kind of scale. To stand out in a world of objects of similar size -- not just other works of art, but all the things in ordinary homes and buildings that vie for visual attention -- windows, computer screens, furnishings. While this presents a challenge, it's also a strength -- this is an accessible scale, that requires no special exhibition space, and feels comfortable to people as an object to contemplate. 

Rebecca's thoughts were helpful, but I still felt caught up in questions such as, can small pieces be anything but decorative? Small paintings have to relate to their surroundings in a way that a large piece does not, precisely because the edges are part of the viewer's experience: A 6"x6" panel cannot surround anything. Can I create a small abstract painting that also has meaning?

It is perhaps part of the phenomenon of midwinter blues that I let this whole subject bother me probably more than it should have. (It didn't help that I wasn't happy with the 6" x 8" pieces.) How could I avoid small pieces being denigrated from "art" to "decor"? Then finally, walking back into the house from the studio yesterday, I realized that I was letting "product" get ahead of "process" and intent, and it all became quite simple. If my intention, with all pieces of all sizes, is to fulfill my artist statement (see post of October 17th), then the product will flow from that intention, and although Rebecca's points remain completely valid, as does the "decorative" issue, my purpose/intention remains primary, and the other issues secondary and, with luck, not dominant.

I'm still not happy with the 6" x 8" pieces, but I've set them aside for the moment. The image above is of my most recent finished piece, 24" x 18", as yet untitled.

Friday, January 11, 2013

scraping back

In a moment of impatience this morning, I employed my painting knife, which I was using to mix some fresh paint on my palette, to scrape off a lump of oil stick from the panel I was working on. The knife -- a blunt, triangle-shaped metal blade angled down from its handle -- left an ugly mark, at which of course I scraped some more. Apparently I used a different angle with the knife, because the mark it made was completely different from the first. My attention diverted, I forgot the paint on the palette and continued to scrape the panel with the painting knife, investigating the effects on the semi-wet surface. The angle of the blade was critical to the result, as was the pressure used against the surface. I spent the next several minutes exploring this new (to me) phenomenon.

The use of the smaller painting knife produced more subtle transitions than broader-bladed scrapers (see post of November 1, 2012), and allowed for blending as well as separating the semi-wet paint. With appropriate pressure, lower, drier layers could be removed as well, producing a rich and complex surface that revealed hints of the history of the panel. I had gotten into the habit, as my technique to reveal lower layers, of dissolving applied paint with mineral spirits and then smoothing or lifting it off. This scraping with the painting knife provides a completely different effect.

To the experienced artist, this revelation will seem simplistic, since scraping with a painting knife is assuredly neither a new nor a sophisticated technique. I felt a little silly at it being a "discovery" for me. But it is not a technique to which I've paid much attention in the past, for whatever reason, and I was intrigued by the difference between the effects it produced and the effects that scraping back with wide flat-blade metal scrapers produces. In my exploration, I put down more paint and more oil stick, and kept scraping. The result, shown in the image above, was a more active, more colorful surface than I usually create. It is not a final surface, but it is a lovely preparatory expanse for some calming top layers. And in taking the time to follow my curiosity and experiment, I found a new way to develop the lower layers of my work, one that complements my intentions and goals. Scraping back is certainly a geologic phenomenon of the Colorado Plateau, if on a somewhat grander scale!

And I learned another lesson, which is how unconsciously entrenched I can become in habitual techniques, and how valuable it is to follow a serendipitous discovery no matter how seemingly simple and basic. My painting process, and my finished work, will be the richer for it.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

color play

Four small (8" x 6") panels are developing together but as separate pieces, in part so that they are coherent with the rest of my work (I tend to wander off on tangents with individual small panels), in part so that I can try different techniques across similar compositions, and in part with the idea that they might end up for sale as a group. I am not forcing the latter idea, but I also am interested in the idea of series of paintings, and this seems a good opportunity to investigate it.

Working small is a welcome change from my recent struggles with larger boards, and is also educational: For example, perhaps one way to address a large board is by dividing it into smaller sections for detailed work. Also, it is less intimidating to experiment with techniques on a smaller piece; one has less invested, especially at the later stages.

I had conceived of a theme of the four seasons as a way to approach the quartet of panels, to differentiate among them while at the same time relating them to each other. As often happens with what seems like a good initial idea, the theme didn't take me far except in the area of color, since I differentiated among spring, summer, fall, and winter in terms of hue. In terms of marks and composition, my actions were fairly random, and I couldn't identify lines, shapes, or divisions that self-differentiated as seasonal.

This morning I explored color interaction among closely related hues. I was partly inspired by a 2013 wall calendar of Rothko's works that I recently hung on the studio wall. I knew that I was not yet at a final surface, which gave me freedom to play and to steal ideas from the calendar. My main purpose was to create four surfaces that reinforced the color ideas that I was developing for each "season". I also used the opportunity to experiment with creating deliberately shaped patches of color with deliberate edges, whether sharp and well-defined or blurred and fuzzy. The image above is the result for the "spring" panel, which I find particularly pleasing.