On Painting

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about quitting my job and going back to school. One of the things I am going back to school to finish is a Fine Arts degree, specifically, a Fine Arts degree in painting. Now before you even ask, no, I don’t have the slightest idea what I am going to do with that and, yes I am fully aware that painting is by and large a terrible way to make money. Even if you’re good at it. It’s a good thing making camel-loads of money isn’t on my to do list because at best I am probably a middling painter and I should add to that I am also horribly out of practice. One of the goals I wish to accomplish before classes start in September is to do some painting and get used to working with the materials again, but I seem to be having a damnable time getting started.

Down and outFirst of all there are the materials. It turns out that I still have almost all of my painting supplies even though for the past eight or so years they have resided in no less than four closets. I still have my easels (read: towel rack and cookbook holder), several wood panels (some cut up for various interior design related projects), my palette (complete with unused and uncleaned eight year old dried paint, blue), and all of my brushes and oil paints. Oil paint properly sealed up will keep a pretty long time. I still have a few (entirely usable) tubes of paint that belonged to some guy’s dad in the 1970’s. The caps won’t come off, but with some creative operations (read: knife) can still get paint out of them. The paint does start to separate after a while and the oil oozes out from under the lid, but for some practice work, it should be good enough. I even found my favourite palette knife which is a blessing because the part of painting that always brought be the most joy was mixing colours.

Before I can mix colours though I had to prepare some surfaces. I managed to dig out some wooden panels that I had used for some paintings that are now long gone. For the old ones I stretched canvas over a wooden panel, but this time I was just going to paint straight onto the panel itself. I discovered half way through school (the first time) that I preferred painting on wood. Somehow it’s more satisfying. First I sanded the panels with some fine sandpaper to take the sharp edges off and give the gesso something to stick to. Gesso is a thick white acrylic primer that will seal the wood and give an even white ground to paint on. I applied three layers of this, alternating direction of the brush strokes with each layer, and sanding the panel in between each layer as well. For about a week and a half this was all I had done, and it was pretty darn satisfying. The panels were quite large, quite white, and quite blank. Unfortunately sometimes there is nothing that is as intimidating as a blank surface. For half a semester in university I had a huge 8′ x 4′ blank, white canvas in my work area that I could just not start on. We jokingly referred to it as “Winnipeg Snowstorm”.

self oneI dug up some other smaller bits of panel, each about 6” x 8” and decided to gesso those up as well. These panels were much smaller but I used the same process. What I wanted to do with these is start very small and just do some experiments or doodles. Nothing fancy and no pressure. After the gesso is applied the next step I do is called the imprimatura. The great thing about these art terms, other then that I can use them to make vague threats to folks who don’t know any better, is that my spell checker thinks I’m ignorant and can’t spell. An imprimatura is a thin layer, or wash, of paint that is applied and then rubbed onto the surface. It provides a ground that is not white to work over. The colour is often a grey or a neutral although some painters like Tom Thompson, used other colours like a reddish orange. This non white ground has many benefits and will affect the way light and colour are affected in the final work, and lets the surface show through the brush strokes in places without being white. It is an old technique that has been used in painting since the middle ages.

Fishing by Moonlight2Finally I began to paint. I used some doodles I have been working on as inspiration and just started using a simple palette of ultramarine blue, white, light cadmium red, and burnt umber. The painting (see left) is just a collection of shapes and forms, darks and lights that (to me) vaguely resembles a fish swimming under a full moon. All the dark areas are a mixture of the blue and the red, which makes my favourite black. I was actually very surprised at how easy the mixing and handling of the paint was. I was sure I would have forgotten, but I was able to match colours and mix colours without too much trouble. The smell of oil paint, always one of my favourite smells, really relaxed me as I worked. I just sort of started painting, putting the brush strokes in and adding one area to another in a way that “felt right.“ While I doodle with pen and paper in that way all the time I’ve never really done a painting like this before, usually I paint stuff-that-looks-like-stuff and I actually spent my last semester in school doing a series of self portraits (the other two images are some examples). The model was cheap and didn’t talk back and it let me explore how I painted while keeping the subject matter more or less the same. I think I might do a few more doodle paintings like this before I start to settle down and figure out what I actually want to work on.

Figuring out what I want to paint has been the most difficult question facing me. Over the past few years I have had some ideas but nothing that has ever driven me to work. I flirted with the idea of doing a series of urban interiors that would focus on the light interacting with the space. I also went through a brief period and even took photographs for some paintings of smoke stacks. It turns out that the smokestack is the architectural feature with which I most relate. Neither of these ideas petered out and mostly because I think that the timing wasn’t right and I didn’t really want to get back into painting enough to start. Now that I do, I will need to revisit these ideas to see if they still hold interest. My main issue as a creative person is that I always feel like I have “nothing to say.” This is entirely ridiculous. I have plenty to say and I feel like I have this interior world that is full of detail and creativity that I just can’t communicate effectively to the outside world. Whatever, and however I wind up painting I feel like it will have to address this feeling. I think maybe these doodle paintings, being a kind of stream of consciousness painting, might be the first step in that direction.


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