Oaxaca Portraits, Quality Over Quantity and Holding Onto the Lightning

Matt Portrait (Oaxaca). Acrylic on canvas. 18" x 24"
Matt Portrait (Oaxaca). Acrylic on canvas. 18″ x 24″

At long last, I completed this portrait of my fiancΓ© holding a giant bundle of dried flowers! This painting is part two of a set – each work depicting one of us in the courtyard of the residence we stayed in on our first trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. This was such a fun project – we staged these poses, made sure the lighting was just perfect, and I worked from the photographs trying to blend realism with a brushy and colorful dynamic. The result is satisfying for me… The subtle smiles on our faces, the high contrast and depth drawing you into the scene, mixed with a somewhat more unreal use of color and focus – these all contribute to intriguing portraits in a style that is all my own. I became more adventurous with the color palette in this second piece, and I had to go back and saturate the first one more with burnt sienna, deep blues and greens, in order to make them come together more.

I began this piece at about about a year ago – I can’t believe it took me this long to finish it! Reflecting on 2019, I realize how little new art I had really made. I have a way of getting down on myself for this, feeling like I’m shortchanging myself if I don’t create new art prolifically. Instead of painting, I was working on the house, volunteering for a gallery, becoming obsessed with gardening and landscaping, spending time with friends and family, spending time with our new dog, playing Magic: The Gathering with my buddies, not to mention my busy job as a hospital nurse. With all of these interests, it’s easy for art to slip to the wayside.

I’m trying not to let it bother me… We can’t all be as prolific as we’d sometimes like. For one, I have found that I simply can’t force myself to paint just out of pure obligation to my identity as an artist. I have to have an idea I’m excited about, or it just doesn’t flow. In the meantime, I’m appreciating more that many of the things I do involve creativity, and there is an “art” or generative nature to just about everything I spend time on. I’m shifting my perspective, trying to re-frame the issue: how can I encourage the creative impulse flow through all the channels of my life instead of confining it to visual art?</p

One thing I’m focusing on in 2020 is actually finishing projects when I start them, instead of letting them drag on for a year. This way, when I do have the time and the inspiration for new pieces, I can hold onto that lightning and follow it all the way through, focusing on quality instead of quantity.

Despite taking me forever (almost two years altogether!), these portraits were really fun, and gave me an opportunity to practice figure and realism, areas I have not explored much. I’m getting ready to move on now to some exciting new territory, having promised some new abstract art for our walls.

Genetic Memory/Congenital Gifts

Genetic Memory/Congenital Gifts. Mixed media on canvas. 36″ x 36″

Genetic Memory/Congenital Gifts is a new mixed media piece that explores the shared living structures common to all forms of life. The abstract vascular shape featured here is shared by all living organisms, and the canvas can be flipped to suggest the shape of a spreading tree, a foundation of roots, an angiogram or a bronchial tree. Floating shapes in the negative space represent cellular organization during early development – a human embryo and a meristematic growth surface are remarkably similar. It’s my way of exploring how organisms seem to “rehearse” evolutionary history on fast-forward throughout development and differentiation

I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus with visual art this summer as I have become increasingly obsessed with gardening and landscaping! However, I’ve come to think of this as another form of art, and it’s easy to see how the art of planting, growing and cultivating overflows into my other artistic practices, such as with this painting. Hoping to catch up with more painting and visual art this Fall and Winter!

Resonance

Resonance. Acrylic on canvas. 24" x 36"
Resonance. Acrylic on canvas. 24″ x 36″

I added the finishing touches on “Resonance” today, a unique acrylic and ink commission for a friend that began as a simple homage to Kandinsky and ended as something else entirely. This “process piece” relied heavily on the grid at first, but through phases of revision/negotiation transformed into something painterly and spatial, full of music and movement. I’m not surprised at the direction this took, as I intentionally worked while listening to composers Brian Eno and Christina Vantzou, trying to translate complex layers of sound into shape and light on the canvas. Creating this painting was somewhat automatic, intuitive and even meditative – an experience I’m beginning to explore more deeply with regard to abstraction.

Final thought: it’s amazing how “art thinking” can change from day to day. In two consecutive days working on this painting, the first brought me to a frustrating impasse where I couldn’t work out the puzzle of balancing this composition. On the second day, I was able to “see it” with renewed vision and decided how to finish the painting almost instinctively. What a lot of work a good night’s sleep can accomplish!

Summer Vacation

Portrait of Men on a Hawaiian Coast. Acrylic on canvas. 8" x 10"
Portrait of Men on a Hawaiian Coast. Acrylic on canvas. 8″ x 10″

While I was not able to make it to any Hawaiian coast whatsoever during this summer’s vacation, I WAS able to live vicariously by painting one featuring this couple! I’m just wading back into my art life after being entirely consumed with purchasing a home, moving, and getting set up since mid-April. My studio only just came together one week ago! This was a fun portrait project to help get back into it after a long vacation from art. It also allowed me to deepen my skill in painting full-figure humans (versus dogs) in a natural setting.

Most enjoyable was the painterly, atmospheric background of clouds and waves in contrast with the meticulously placed daubs of paint here and there to capture the likeness of the subjects. I worked with a limited primary palette to mix all the colors, which I think lends a certain “pure” feel to the overall tone. This was the first painting completed in my new studio space, and I’m eager to move on to many more projects currently floating around in my head!

Check out the instagram posts below to see how this painting developed:

Dans La Campagne

Dans La Campagne. Acrylic on canvas. 30" x 40"
Dans La Campagne. Acrylic on canvas. 30″ x 40″

C’est fini! This picturesque scene developed as a commission piece for a family member who requested a French countryside/cottage image for her dining room. This assignment led me to review one of my favorite landscape painters, Gustave Courbet. Courbet liked to present himself as a “man of the countryside,” and generated a plethora of dramatic natural scenes depicting rolling hills, cliffsides, trees, animals, little towns and people of the era recreating within it. What I admire about Courbet’s work is the stark contrasts, the bold use of color, and the painterly technique/style imbued in his work. Courbet often used thick impasto mark-making, palette knives and even transferred texture using rags to create heightened detail and depth in his subjects.

As I began this piece with a deep burnt umber underpainting, and developed up the layers, I referenced dozens of Courbet landscape paintings to inform my composition and decision-making. I tried to emulate some of Courbet’s techniques, to great or little extent, especially the use of texturing with the knife. What was challenging with this piece was not having one single photo reference for the composition. Instead, I had to mentally stitch together several photo references (cottage, cow, landscape, rooster, tree, etc.) and make it all work with regard to perspective.

Me voilΓ !

Self-Portrait (Oaxaca). Acrylic on canvas. 18" x 24"
Self-Portrait (Oaxaca). Acrylic on canvas. 18″ x 24″

I haven’t posted much in the last few months as we have been completely consumed with the process of purchasing a home. That does not mean that I have not also been busy with painting! Over the next few days I’ll post a few of my recent painting milestones.

Our February trip to Oaxaca, Mexico inspired this self-portrait. The open-air courtyards familiar to Spanish colonial architecture were the perfect place to capture dramatic lighting. Many of the plants and cacti in our courtyard were wild and unruly, giving the haphazard space an “ugly-beautiful” feel, splashes of color surrounding us. From a technique perspective, I tried hard to paint in all the lights and darks, creating deep contrast, before I began working with color. Process pics below to see how the layers developed. Soon, the counterpart portrait of my devoted traveling partner will surface, but it’s still lingering in my imagination for now :)

Formation v. Migration. “What is it?”

Formation v. Migration. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18" x 24"
Formation v. Migraation. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18″ x 24″

Finally turned a corner on this abstract piece yesterday. I’m feeling more comfortable with abstraction and developing confidence with unique ways of working. A common response to abstract art from my circles: “What is it?” Rather than stumble through a rote interpretation of what’s going on here, I thought I would post my working notes below:

Traction in Abstraction. Painting Abstract Aerial Lake. The Shape of Life. Geology. Depth study. Geese flying, goose guide. Bold, vibrant color.

Difficulty > (what am I doing? non-representational, no reference > endless options) (What do I do next? > endless options, breakthroughs, leave and come back > allow brain to breathe) (Where does my mind go? > [Solve creative “problem” > aesthetic “problem”] How to balance > How to disrupt?)

Geese in flight or chromosomes bending in suspension OR analogous geometric/genetic experiences in biology
Pure abstraction? Figuration with goose? Content – why pure abstraction? Abstract totem, invokes what I cannot avoid saying.
Land matters. Depth matters. space matters. Sub-paintings in space > figural totem, geese flying, Icarus, chromosomes, experimental spaces

Winter Solstice Portraiture

Mr. Jobe Surveying his Winter Orchids. Acrylic on canvas.
Mr. Jobe Surveying his Winter Orchids. Acrylic on canvas.

I started this portrait of my live-in, unpaid studio model on the Winter Solstice, intending to compose a painting that looks forward to warmth and growth during the cold, bleak Minnesota winter. I thought about styling this as a somewhat abstract, cubist composition, but was lured into classical representation instead. While this type of portrait is not necessarily my forte, it has been a fun and challenging project so far, and I’ve frequently found myself lost in the long moments of focus/meditation on careful color mixing, delicate glazing and developing depth. In the end, I want the subject to have a glowing, warm feel radiating from the center of the composition, in stark contrast with the hard, chilly light of the surrounding seasonal blues. As I work, I’m trying to channel portraits by Degas and Manet, to name a few. At this phase of the painting, I’m ready to break from reliance on the photo reference and deepen some stylistic elements, embellish the scene and let the visual poetry play out.

“It is all very well to copy what one sees, but it is far better to draw what one now only sees in one’s memory. That is a transformation in which imagination collaborates with memory.” – Edgar Degas

Resuscitation Rite (Self Portrait)

Resuscitation Rite (Self Portrait). Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 36" x 48"
Resuscitation Rite (Self Portrait). Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 36″ x 48″

Incubation. Gestation. Uterus/Heart. Growth & Development. Ripening. Maturation. Evolution. Vessels & Hollow Organs. Heart/Uterus. Impulse. Creative Stream. Universal Generativity. Revival. Resurrection. Resuscitation. These are a few of my favorite things! And/or the wayfinding words I was jotting down in my project book/journal as I set out to rework a ten-year-old self portrait that just needed something more.

The former painting, a half-baked figure drawing of myself lying in semi fetal position, came from the tail end of my art school years when I was working on expressive figure sketches, mostly in rote, frothy charcoal and muddled with bright, concentrated color (see “Imaginary Figures”). Working through how to transform this piece into something I could be proud of was an interesting process. In many ways, I felt like I was having a conversation with my younger self, recognizing what I was trying to do 10 years ago, and letting that dialog with today’s sensibilities, changed as they are. I found that several of my old tricks and practices have endured and perhaps matured over the years. The same joy in speed and gestural energy is there in the old and the new way of working. I have a better grasp on color and inventive palettes now, something I really missed ten years ago.

As I worked through this painting I began thinking more deeply about what it means symbolically to come full circle on a self-portrait. I came across my desire to reinvent without fully destroying this object that my 22-year old self made. I’m reading a biography about artist Jasper Johns, and I was intrigued at a part of Johns’ career where he systematically destroyed his older work after he found his creative niche, erasing the traces of his incremental growth. I have certainly had the impulse to obliterate old paintings, but I so value the idea of ritual transformation that I find inspiration and meaning in the process, the traces leading up to a certain point in time. I like to see the arc of things. Perhaps I really am a “big picture” thinker – my partner mentions it frequently. I remember how lost I felt at 22, facing graduation and the bleak world outside art school, and I wonder if that uncertainty contributed to the savage, transitional quality of the original image. I wish then I could have seen the long view and trusted it. It sounds so sentimental…I tried to have a little overdue self-compassion as I helped this old portrait find a way out of confusion. The result is a somewhat spiritual (if not a little corny), surrealist affirmation of our constant state of change and transformation, a theme that is ever more important in my art practice and my perspective in general.

“I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.” – Jasper Johns