Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I push a rock up a hill; Vincent tosses it back down. There is cussing, but sadly, no scotch.

 Hello, Art Lovers, wherever you are...

In continuing with Vincent's cypress tree theme, this week I am featuring the Dutchman's Road with Cypress and Star...

Van Gogh painted this master work in 1890, and it is a beautiful, atmospheric study of the road leading home after a long day of physical labor.

Vincent's version (which you see at right) is SO much better than my hack at it (left).  In his painting, Van Gogh's precise and absolutely exquisite use of color lends a language to the painting that transcends the image, allowing the viewer to not only take in the scene, but to feel the tired ache of well used muscles (both human and equine) and the welcoming warmth of a house readied with an (undoubtedly) blazing hearth at its center.

But, like the latter part of the day that is depicted in the painting, this is where my week ended, rather than where it began...

When I asked Margo to assign a painting to me, she was torn between Van Gogh's Fischerboote (blog posting 5/13/13) and the (previously painted [by me - see blog postings 8/7/12, 8/9/12]) Almond Blossoms.  I told her that I would rather do the little boats because I had not painted them before and I thought that they would be the best challenge.

In keeping with Margo's specifications, I had selected a very small (5X7) gesso covered board to paint the boats on, but after I had finished, I flipped the painting over to the empty back of the board, and thought to myself... why not give her both...?

So that is what I decided to do.

First, I painted on a rudimentary bluish background, which I figured would make things easier as far as painting into what was going to be a very tiny and detailed foreground.  I sized, then traced a copy of Vincent's original image onto the painted surface.

The brushes I used to paint the image with were microscopic, and frankly, a little annoying to use.   I had to break out my super strength reading glasses to see what I was doing.

As I did in the first, much larger painting, I began with the branches, which I outlined in deep, blacky grey, then filled in with yellow greens and blue greens.  Like the fishing boats, I did not paint this on my easel, but just held the little board in my left hand while I painted with my right.

At left, you can see how the painting lined up with Van Gogh's original (from a book).

The addition of yellow highlights, as well as grey, black and blue shadows were giving the branches both dimensionality and roundness.

I had a growing concern was that the image seemed overly busy, and I was beginning to wonder how I would add in the additional depths of blues that would be required for a believable background.
In the images above, at right and below, you can see how the blue background that I had painted was not filled in evenly, and how traces of the board were showing through...

This was not going to work if I wanted to produce a finished looking image to send to Margo.  And the boats, which were good, were already on the other side.  Hmmmm.....

So I set to work on the background.  I added a few more blues onto my palette, then, with the tiniest of the tiny brushes, I started filling in around the branches...

and filling in around the branches. And accidentally slipping some blue over the edges of the branches...

then filling in the sides and entirety of the branches... then covering the damn branches with paint and brushes that would not behave!

My fingers felt like kielbasa sausages in terms of fatness and control.

And the more I painted, the worse it got.

I was not a happy camper.

 There were less printable words involved.

I didn't get on my big girl panties, but I sure as hell got out my big girl brush.


Do over time.

So now I was ready to make a fresh start.

The only problem was, I was now in a panic about my self imposed deadline of painting three pieces a week - so I decided to try painting three Almond Blossom paintings simultaneously.  

I did this for a few reasons: first, the little boards had come in a three pack, so I had two left over, and second, I thought it would be nice to paint some additional  "pocket Van Gogh's" which I could give as gifts or even calling cards.  I also had a lot of paint on my palette (because of their diminutive size, the boards required very little paint which could not be squirted in any tinier sploots), which I felt could be more efficiently used by painting in an assembly line fashion...

I had heard that some professional artists (those producing "sofa sized" paintings for hotel art shows) painted in this way, so it was not completely unprecedented...

Then, taking a page from the Henry Ford playbook, I painted the backs of the three boards with intense blues, and retraced Vincent's branch scheme on top.
I was ready to resume my branch painting...

and started by completing all of the black outlines...

I then moved on to the greens...

which did not behave remotely as they were supposed to...

Oh, how could I have missed this!

The technique that I had used before involved painting the wet green into the wet black, so that the branches would shadow and "round" properly.

But I was trying to shove wet into dry!

My assembly line system had left me with absolutely complete, beautifully dry and completely unworkable black outlines.

So now I was further behind!!

Why was I doing this voluntary project in the first place?!?

The line you see above in this blog will forever be known as a cuss line.  Nuff said.


Round 3.
At least I was getting better and faster.


Just faster.

That's what they say about all the great painters - "Oh yeah, he painted really fast!"

Blah, blah, blah... you've heard it all before...

Here is the leftover paint that was on my palette.  I knew right were to look for each color because I was painting Sisyphus style....

In my own self disgust, I just started painting, and again, forgot to take the photos.  But I started to feel better just looking at the little pinky, creamy flowers...
I dabbed on each individual petal with a very tiny little brush, using a mixture of petal pink, titanium, unbleached titanium and buff.

Above and below are some extra large examples, which show where I added in some brown lines to define the individual petals and add depth, followed by closeups of the same.

I did coat both sides of the finished board with several layers of varnish before mailing it off to Margo... the pain of this particular childbirth was forgotten when Margo texted me:

With all of my tiny brushes freshly washed and ready to go, I decided to (re) do Vincent's Irises...

which I put on the back of the tiny Starry Night (from my blog 5/21/13).

I used the same tracing method as before, which worked out very well because most of the paintings in my little Barnes and Noble Van Gogh book were sized at just a bit smaller than the 5 X 7 boards.

With the intricacies of the Iris image, I was glad that I did the tracing and transfer with a colored pencil, so I would know where I had previously marked the transfer onto my board.

You have seen me paint the Irises before, so I won't bore you with the details, but it was many tiny layers of tiny blobs of paint with tiny, tiny brushes.
And here it is:

I decided I was liking the feel of the gessoed boards, so I cracked open another one for the Road with Cypress and Star picture.

I fear I may be growing too dependent upon the tracing method, but I will admit that it speeds the work considerably, and after all of the false starts earlier this week, I felt bad about my choice to trace, but not bad enough not to do it.

Note how I taped down the three layers (support, tracing paper, photocopied image) so that nothing could move while I was doing the tracing.

There is my little Starry Night drying between its coats of varnish in the background.  It is propped up on two restaurant service (aus jus, horseradish, drawn butter)cups, which I use to hold varnish or other small bits of paint or liquid.  Available at a restaurant supply store near you...

OK, with my tracing complete, I am ready to:

A. Start painting, and
B. Forget to use my camera!

So, lots of swooshy layers of greens, browns, yellows, blues, and blacks.

I did leave out the horse drawn buggy, as well as the secondary small star on the left side of the canvas in order to simplify my composition, which at 9" X 12", was much smaller than Vincent's original, which was about 36" X 29".

And here it is next to the original in the book...

You will note that in the book, the color of the original is quite different than what is shown on the net (below).  What gives with that?  Without seeing the original, it is hard to know precisely what colors Vincent actually used.  I decided on the Wikipedia version (below) as the definitive one for me.

So I just kept on filling in and filling in, adding darker here, then lighter there, then switching back and forth with what was dark and what was light.

I was haunted by that minty green.

Haunted by that minty green, which I could never get to be quite as refreshing as it needed to be...

Below, you can see where I stopped for the day; note the unfinished area around the moon and at the horizon on the left.

The next day (above) I finished the painting up, or came close to finishing it, or in the words of the great Leonardo da Vinci, Art is never finished, only abandoned.

Easy for him to say....

Three new paintings are already done for next week, so I am sort of kind of keeping on schedule.  I will blog about them soon.

Stay safe, make some art, and go ahead and eat a cookie.  I will be pouring some scotch.  Into a bucket.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Starry, Starry, Starry Night

Hello, Readers!

Well, three paintings in a week - it is very challenging, but, I am happy to report to you that, thanks to a little moonlighting, at least on week one, I made it! [Author's note:  I started writing this with the intention to publish on Saturday (the 18th) but was called out of town over the weekend.  So the paintings were on time, it is the blog that is late...]

The Starry Night over Marble Falls (after Van Gogh)

As you can see by the photo above, I tried my hand at what I think may be Vincent's most moving (if not his most iconic) work, The Starry Night.

I love, love, love Vincent's original, which I have been lucky enough to see twice by visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Because the image has always loomed largely in my head and my heart, when I first visited the painting, I was completely shocked to see how small it was.

You can see at left and below that the painting is not exactly "sofa sized."  Van Gogh's original measures 29" X 36 1/4", so it is really quite a small canvas to capture the entire sky!  Without so much as even a nod to Itunes or Spotify, I know all of you right now have Don McLean's Vincent (song) (also known as) Starry Starry Night playing softly on the soundtrack in your heads...


Vincent painted The Starry Night in 1889, while recovering in the asylum at St. Remy.  During his stay there, Vincent experienced many sleepless nights, which he spent looking out of the window of his hospital room.  The Starry Night is the view that the recovering Vincent saw, and although it was painted from memory during the day time, there is no more beautiful image of the night sky than the one that he captured there.

Painting my own version of The Starry Night has been a wonderful and very moving experience for me, primarily because it forced me to stop and really consider how Vincent made the original.

File:Van Gogh - Starry Night - Google Art Project.jpg

The first thing I noticed was that The Starry Night is very similar to the previously painted Cypress Trees.  If you cut the image about in half, the left side, with the strong upwardly vertical trees rising, and the swirling, undulating sky and stars, gives you a definite flavor of the image of the two cypresses.  The only major difference is the town nestled in the quiet valley.  It makes sense that Vincent repeated the image, because it was the view from his room, and Vincent was known most of all for painting the world right in front of him.

OK, on to the painting.  The composition seems absolutely simple.  A little town sits sleepily in the crook of a valley beneath a starry sky.  A crescent moon at the upper right is balanced by a weighty stand of cypress trees which cut directly across the left third of the picture.  The stars and moon appear to be twinkling and/or glowing, and the evening sky is striated with white swirls, which could be clouds, or wind or maybe even the milky way!

PAINTING #1 - Starry Night Study

I began on a gessoed 5X7 board.  The board was painted black to cover up a completely unsuccessful experiment, which I will expound upon in next weeks blog. (your paintings this week and next week are presented out of order because it is my blog and I wanted to do it that way, so there!) I thought that the black might be a good under-layer for the dark hues of the painting.

I started with a photocopy of Vincent's original, which happened to be in about a 5X7 size. I then traced the outlines of the image onto my board using my handy and swiftly becoming beloved tracing paper.  Careful observers will note that an additional trip was made to Jerry's Artarama, to get tracing paper in milky white.

Here's how it all went down:

The black board at left is the post-traced image.  I think it looks awesomely like chalk on a chalkboard, so I was looking for some erasers to clap together.  Unlike chalk, the tracing paper leaves a very stuck down, unsmeary image.

Here I am starting to add some paint; I dove in with very small brushes and the colors that were just left over and waiting for me on my palette.  Once again, I forgot to take pictures, so I filled in a lot more than I should have before I remembered to pick up my camera.  Because the painting was so small, the color went on very fast - the dark background also meant that in certain parts, there was less to fill in.

To the left you will see that the stars look like 9 eggs, all cooked sunny side up.

While I was in the middle of the painting, I looked out my window at the evening sky, and darned if I didn't see my own evening atmosphere with swirling striations just like Vincent's! I just sat and watched what turned out to be wind driven clouds, and, seriously, they looked very much like the swirls that Vincent painted. Unfortunately, the wind blew them apart before I could grab my camera, but it was very thrilling for me to see them right at the moment that I did so.

OK I think it is starting to look like something now.  The brushes that I was using were TINY - and I found myself often dipping just the corner of an angled brush into my color and painting it on with a delicate sideways slant.

This was the equivalent of making teeny tiny little Barbie clothes with their horrifying set in sleeves.

Painting on, I once again focused on holding the tiny board in my hands so that I could keep in control of the application of the paint.

There are many, many layers on this little canvas.
OK, I am getting closer to done; here is my version (lower), along with a print out of Vincent's original.  Mine is more crude looking because I was packing a lot of color and individual brushstrokes onto a really quite small support, but I am pleased with the way that the light looks (especially reflected on the cypress trees), and the energy and vibrancy of the sky.

Vincent's choice of using a cloisonne technique to outline the objects in his painting was such an integral part of the charm of the original image.  I am pleased with the depth this technique seems to be giving my own reproduction.

So that is the finished study.  What a lot of fun it was to paint!

I then decided that I would to do a bigger version, and I wanted to tuck my own town into the valley instead of the French village that Vincent depicted.

Since beginning the Vincent Project, every time I've driven over the (new!) bridge, I am struck by how my town looks a little bit like the one in Vincent's Starry Night painting.

The spire of the church is the dominant feature in Vincent's original, and, as it happens, we also have a church spire in the middle of our town (the Marble Falls Methodist Church).

At night, my slumbering little village looks to be arranged in much the same fashion as Van Gogh's, with the only major difference being the greatly expanded number of lights on display in my completely electrified (thanks, LBJ!) community.


I printed off an image of MF (as we locals call it), and did a tracing onto a 12" X 24" canvas covered board.  The squaggaly lines in the upper left are a cedar tree that I added from a separate image.  I thought that the tree was unusual and interesting, but it was actually just kind of weird, and looked to be shaped like a leaning feather duster on two clean trunks.

 So here is the finished tracing/drawing, including my freehanded rendition of Vincent's magnificent sky, stars, and moon.

Yes, my freehand was probably a little bit too free...

I started the painting portion of the program with the tree, feathering up with blues and greens.  I added in an outline of the sky-swirls, and pushed some dark black into the lower right to pave the road leading into town.

I then filled in the town, the hills, and much of the background of the sky.

Although the painting was looking awful to me, I decided to soldier on.

Honestly, it was as if I took the worst of my own image and combined that with a sloppy and just plain stupid rendition of Vincent's work.

OK, I realized that the tree was not working at all, and added new foliage to round it out and cover the hula hut looking version of our library.

If Don Draper were writing an advertising slogan for me, I think he would say "It's toasted..."

The Methodist Church in the center of the image looks like a sawed off Tower of the Americas in nearby San Antonio.

The other buildings have a nice stairstep effect, which makes them look as if they are sliding off of the hill and into the lake.

It is a tree on steroids, and everything is bobbing and floating on a sea of vegetation...
Orbiting pancake stars.

Mountains of weirdness.

Godzilla tree.

Regurgitated broccoli bushes.


A fix?

Still unfixable.


Still unfixable.

Now it's FIXED!

PAINTING #2 - My own Starry Night

The photo at right shows lake Marble Falls and the City of Marble Falls looking down from the hill on the south side of the lake.  It was taken about 1/4 mile further west than the first picture.  In this version, the Methodist Church, with an exaggerated spire, is in the middle left of the picture.  A waterfront hotel is at the lower right, with a corner of the building cut off by a tree in the foreground.  

The sloping bank on the left side is a wide, grassy knoll where, each August, sweaty, extremely excited, and always beer fueled fans watch our annual drag boat races, featuring very fast and very loud boats skimming and skipping across the narrow channel of lake.

Every Thanksgiving, the grassy strip is transformed into The Walkway of Lights, a Christmas extravaganza featuring hundreds of thousands of twinkling holiday lights arranged in and around a pathway carved into the slope of the hill.  Although visitors love to walk through the path, we locals know that the best view of the Walkway is seen from the other side of the lake (see above).

I left room on the canvas for a native Texas Cedar tree, which was subbing in my painting for Vincent's beloved Cypresses.

This time I chose a more normally shaped, typical Texas Cedar.

Yes, it looks a little like a scrubby, dense Christmas tree, and yes, you cannot live in Central Texas for more than a few years without succumbing to the allergic hell of it's annual pollen blasts.  Benadryl!  It does more than just make you sleepy...

I think it looks enough like a short, chubby Cypress tree to pass.

The swirls, moon and stars I drew in (with far less of a) freehand, modeling as closely as I could to Vincent's original.

And now a few closeups...

Because this painting did not start with a black under-layer, I decided to begin by filling in with some dark blues and greens on the hillside and lake.

After my previous experience, the buildings were a little terrifying, so I warmed myself up by just painting around them.

OK, so most of the land area is filled in, and I am starting to add in some colors to differentiate the trees.

Now the town, the tree, and the first dark swirl of sky are at least rudimentarily painted in.  The swirl was fun to do; giving me a nike swhooshie feeling as I painted.

I was thinking I was being good about taking pictures until I realized that I skipped the entire "painting the town" part.

Anyway, here is a close up of some of the buildings and the water.

Better than the last time, I would say.

Like Ben and Jerry's, I went a little nutty with my swirls!

After considering the flatly painted hills and trees in my version, I looked very closely at Vincent's original and determined that I would not be able to individuate the elements in my painting the way that he had in his.  I asked myself the question I always ask myself: What would Vincent do?

I decided to use light blues, violets, minty greens and whites to highlight and differentiate the individual buildings, trees, and the landscape of the hillside. I picked up and layered these light colors, alternating them to make "leaves", "grass", and highlights,

but they were a little too bright.  Transparent blue to the rescue!  To the right of the church is a closeup of the lighter strips, which you can see are a combination of violet and mint.  On the left, I have gone over the area with a wash of transparent blue.

This softened the "in your face effect" of the light squiggles, and allowed me to blanket the town in a soft layer of darkness.
You can see at the right where I painted just a stroke of blue over the lighter colors, and the effect this had on the brightness of the image.

It was really just like having a bulb on a dimmer.  The darker I wanted it, the more layers of blue I added.  There were some things, like the windows and the roofs of the buildings that I kept almost completely light, but other things, like the undershadows of the trees and the deep part of the lake, that I put in a shroud of midnight blue.

At left, I am continuing to add varying lightness and darkness to the sky, all while keeping up with my original swirls.

I realized I needed more opaque blues and yellows, so after another trip to Jerry's...
I finally felt like I was getting somewhere.

Below are some closeups, revealing details like the reflections on the water, and the impasto effect on the sky, stars, and moon.

Here is the finished painting, broken into three different sections: the right, the center, and, finally, the left:

And, again, here is the final painting:

And I am ready for a piece of American Pie.