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 :)
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
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
A still-life of prismatic containers divides cold winter light into rainbow jets of color, filling my studio space with a brilliant playfulness that leaps away from November’s funeral pall. My assignment was to rework an old watercolor sketch based on a dream about water basins. It became a meditation on the warmth, love and trust inherent in my art practice.
In October I began volunteering at Vine Arts Center, a local community-run gallery in my neighborhood. During one of our exhibition discussions, another artist discussed his view of people in the world as “vessels,” each in a varying state of being filled, empty, or something in between. Vessels can be reservoirs for anything we can imagine inside them. They can be a potential space or a void. They can be man-made or naturally occurring. Vessels can be filled with physical matter or the intangible. Vessels can be broken or leaky. They hold valuables or transport. Vessels can protect. In short, vessels do a lot of work. I frequently find myself pondering this metaphor as it relates to art and the human condition – I have been curious about how to incorporate it in my work.
With this commission, I decided to start with a simple composition of arranged “vessels,” the various containers, plastic jugs, mason jars and empty fruit cups repurposed for paint that litter my studio. I “filled” or imbued the skeleton drawing of the piece with the “core” of my own formal artistic sensibilities: expressive color and brushstroke patterns, heavy contrasts between muted, cold tones and vibrant, living hues, struggle between linearity and ambiguity, representation and abstraction. Throughout the process, I paused to examine my thoughts and actions, took notes, looked inside to acknowledge the intuition that guided my hands, something I have rarely done on purpose. In this way, Vessel Work feels like a deliberate meditation on the spiritual, inner aspect of art creation and what it means to me personally.
Warmth and radiation of light are treated with paramount importance. The elements in the working space are tied together and interconnected by their participation in light, their energetic vibrations in the field. The work is related to love – making a painting about (simply) what I love to do is freeing and spontaneous without constraints of any kind. And yet there must be constraints, that tension between rule and misrule, which mystifies and generates beauty. And through this sensibility comes trust. Trust that the work will become what it will – I am reminded of Schmendrick the Magician from “The Last Unicorn,” yelling “Magic, do what you will!” as he grasps at the reigns of a force he can’t control. I cling to trust that in the end, the painting and the artist (and yes, the client) will be satisfied if I play to my strengths, challenge my skills accordingly, and take risks in the creation of the illusion. Trust that in painting no act is final, and the painter therefore has relatively less control than it would seem.
“Coagulation Studies” is an ongoing series of abstract work utilizing old paint and automatic ways of working. Salvage and collage of old materials such as paint chips, solidified or “coagulated” media, and remnants of product labels addresses the concept of time by juxtaposing media at different stages of transformation or life cycle. Formal aesthetic decision-making is minimized by using archetypal, automatic compositions and a palette limited to the leftover paint from other projects. Additional themes explored in “Coagulation Studies” include the nature of various media, physiological processes and shapes, interconnectedness and complexity, and creative systems.
Coming in the midst of a furious week of art production, here is the formal result of my recent research into cubism! This commissioned piece moderately deconstructs three poses (one model – unharmed in the production process) and the studio space around them. I treated this subject with all of the cubist sensibility I was able to scrape together from online searches, a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and biographies of the likes of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques. My final composition borrows heavily from Picasso’s bold “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and samples the palette of Picasso’s blue period, Braque’s somber spectrum, and adds an iridescent gold flare because decorative art!
This being my first relatively abstract, non-photographic commission piece, the ideas and prototypes came together through consultation. Trading pictures of murals, famous paintings, and devising color schemes, we carved out a shared mental model of the painting to come.
I began working on this piece by reading and observing. I was curious to find out what my giant art history textbooks, the internet, and our local free museum had to say about cubism. I was surprised to find that certain aspects of cubism were similar to what I was trying to do with “time-lapse” figure painting in the latter half of my art school years, so picking up that line of work felt a bit like coming home. Read more on what I found out about cubism’s “greater context” here. Once I had determined how cubist sensibilities could fit into my style, I invited over a friend to model for some gestural sketches. These loose and expressive sketches helped me form the basis for the figures and I built up the geometric environment around them. From there, the challenge became walking a thin line between decorative, calculated abstraction and representational figure painting, my client preferring something in the middle. See process snapshots below.
I could go many directions from here in order to fully invest in this way of working. Some cubists section off the surface in such a way that objects and bodies are barely recognizable, obscured by geometry and the conceptual/perceptual notions of cubism. Which to me is less interesting as I am still in love with drawing and painting the human body. Another idea is to fully push the idea of poses changing through time. I recently attended a figure drawing cooperative at a local art academy, and wondered how I could incorporate all the 5, 10, 15 and 20 minute poses over four hours into the same composition. The final result would probably be something quite abstract but also quite recognizably human. Overall, I have befriended cubism and feel like I’ve grown a bit as an artist after examining and producing in this way. I’m eager to get deeper into the water.
Waking up one morning shortly after the recent Charlottesville, VA riot, I read a headline about Baltimore, MD’s confederate monuments being removed by overnight work crews. Gleefully scanning through the report, one particular photo in the article caught my eye and I immediately wanted to make a painting after it. In the image, a hulking Robert E. Lee and mount are lifted by a crane and balanced by work crews as they are carried away from a public-facing pedestal. Onlookers line the background snapping photos with their phones as the piece is hoisted up and away, towards a consuming yellow light at the top of the frame.
For some time I have wanted to challenge myself to paint in a traditional/classical style as a way to exercise my formal drawing, composition-building, and glazing skills. The Romantic movement painter Eugene Delacroix’s work has been a particular favorite of mine, with deep contrasts, expressive brushwork and attention to narrative drama and intrigue in his choice of subject. The snapshot of General Lee’s flight from public presence in Baltimore brought to mind several epic paintings of horses and social struggle rendered by Delacroix. Below is an example I chose to guide my work on this piece.
A revelation in working at this style has been the liberal use of dull gray tones, something that is fairly alien to my regular practice. The muted earthy hues contrast sharply with areas of color to help direct focus and create drama, a use of color I am beginning to more fully understand. In order to achieve the lush, complicated surface in Delacroix’s work, I’m working at glaze layers and attention to detail where I want the viewer to focus. At this point, I’ve blocked in most of the compositional elements and contrasts, and the surface is ready for finer treatments of the overall atmosphere, details, and stylistic features. Lastly, I am intrigued by the conceptual interplay of painting in a “historical” style while calling into question the notions of history, justice and public space currently in debate.
Here is a preparation piece/study for an upcoming project I am doing for a friend. I had another friend model and tried to render the figures in three separate perspectives using a cubist sensibility in my analysis and reworking of the visual field. I am so satisfied with this composition and treatment of the figures that I am considering making a full-size painting out of it, but perhaps it is best left alone as a study.
I started reading about cubism in the past couple of weeks to understand the theory behind this distinctive style. While I have not always been a fan of the blocky, dead-feeling paintings of Georges Braque and Jean Metzinger, the cubism of Picasso really speaks to me, perhaps because it seems almost decorative in the same vein as Gustav Klimt, alive with color and movement. What I found in my reading described the cubist’s attempt to portray a greater sense of reality by presenting a subject from many sides/perspectives, and in turn creating with the visual field a “greater context” around the subject for the viewer to have a fuller experience of the art. Within cubism’s paradigm is also a theme of temporal shift, with a subject changing slightly through different points in time. This last idea struck home with me as I recognized my own interest in early attempts at “time lapse” painting, which I termed “progressive” painting at the time. What I find fascinating about cubism is the attempt to imbue the static media of paint with the inherent transitional qualities of living structures in time and space.
Working and thinking through cubism comes at a time when I try to find a “greater context” for myself, both in my art and life in general. My RN job is challenging but I’m finally creeping up the learning curve and trying to get more involved with our unit. I’m reaching out my feelers for arts organizations to volunteer and contribute in meaningful ways, instead of painting in obscurity. As Summer fades, I feel a slight pressure to get more irons in the fire to keep me busy and warm through the long Minnesota winter.
Here is a painting of my cousin’s little girl wading into Holland Lake, a favorite swimming spot nearby our family’s cabin in northwestern Montana. The Swan Valley and locales along highway 83, located between the Swan and Mission Mountain ranges, hold special significance for our family. Many generations of kids have swam in Holland Lake or hiked to its falls, collected its thimble berries and careened at high speed on a giant inflatable crocodile over its mini whitecaps. I was excited to take up this project because the composition marries majestic landscape with figure work, and works easily with all the expressive brushwork I love to do.
I started this piece with a simple grid to transpose the image basics, then filled in everything with a rich pink underpainting that manages to shine through even the final layers of paint. The Swan Mountains are known for summer forest fires, and the smoky haze can bend the evening sun in such a way that the horizon flushes the same deep pink of a cutthroat trout, washing everything in this dramatic rose tone. I wanted to channel that fluorescence in a subtle way without the final piece appearing too dream-like. Find process pics here: https://www.instagram.com/atelierzjt/
The most vexing part of this work was the sky and clouds – it was difficult to make them “fit” with the rest of the painting. Clouds in most reference photos are not exactly aesthetically pleasing. I could benefit from doing some plein aire cloud studies to get a knack for this. As usually happens with my paintings, there were several points where I wanted to stop and leave the surface alone because I saw a particular vibration or movement that I did not want to overwork or blunt. My sense for when this occurs is getting keener because I am beginning to understand what exactly is exciting for me in this media. For work like this, the key is finding the intriguing balance between stylization and realism, tension between abstraction and representation.
My latest project, a portrait of my second cousin Anna’s pooch Schatzie, is now finalized! This was an incredibly fun piece to work on, both for the larger size, the opportunity to play with color, and the detailed brushwork that such a close-up demands. In this portrait, I continued to tease out color nuances and “transitional” hues between distinct color stations, as well as creating a sense of depth, an overall goal in my painterly development. Throughout this process I also dove deep into the rich complexity of the color blue. Particularly, I worked with ultramarine blue – a sober, stoic blue who does not want to be green or violet, and would much rather fade to gray than roll with change – and primary cyan, an energetic, electric blue that readily mutates but has a naive quality that is somewhat related to finger paint. As I worked through the phases of this portrait, the intriguing synergy (yes, synergy!) between these blues became the primary focus.
Overall, the pet portrait projects have blasted off. So far this year I have had four commissions, and there are a handful in the pipeline, including portraits of two-legged (read: human) subjects. Through these portrait commissions I have begun to carve out a unique style, deepen my understanding of color theory, practice classic techniques such as layering and glazing, and also develop my business sense as an artist – something I certainly did not learn in art school. They also help me escape from puzzling over my recent abstract work when I get in a rut.
In other news, tonight is the opening for Norseman Distillery’s first juried exhibition. My older painting “Tuberculosis” will be featured alongside the work of 34 other artists selected for the show. If you can make it, I would love to see you there! Make sure to follow this blog for updates on upcoming shows, or simply if you are interested in the cracked insights of a 30-something-artist-geek-nurse-by-day/eve/night-animal-lover-freak-of-nature ;)
Working on this pet portrait commission in the hours between three consecutive night shifts! A vibrant underpainting and loose, expressionist style is giving me ample room to explore simple depth and intermediate tones. I’m trying to mix color quickly and intuitively to avoid the traps of overthinking. The result is so far quite beautiful and reminds me of Van Gogh or Paul Gauguin palettes.
A few new acrylic blobs for you this week! Thinking about cells, fragment poetry, cascades, automatic art, classification and taxonomy, time and transformation, decoupage, the border between painting and sculpture, bug collections, miniature paintings, sedimentation, among other things.
Making abstract art is difficult. Trained mostly as a representational painter, I have always found navigating the ambiguity of abstraction a murky, sometimes arbitrary task. However, that foggy negotiable space is crucial to what I admire in painting, and factors into the creative process I’m developing. I’m often seeking a particular balance between real and unreal, objective and subjective, visual equivalents of prose and poetry. Thus these days I have committed myself to explore terra incognita and foray into non-representational pursuits when I’m not painting a cute doggie.
Why is abstract painting so challenging? [Start stream of consciousness on the subject of abstraction.] Without a reference, there are endless options, and I’m repeatedly puzzling over the questions: what am I doing? Why am I doing that? How does this relate to the concept I am trying to convey? Should I even be thinking about this so hard? What is life? What the f*ck? Mostly, I end up sort of making progress on a general concept, and then find myself working through several aesthetic “problems” that I try to address using my creative process. The biggest question here is “what do I do next?” When I’ve hit a rut and I’m thoroughly in the weeds, I’m usually trying to find an interesting way to create visual balance or break through that particular point in the painting’s creation. The tricky thing is finding a solution that makes sense with the original concept and so forth, which may in turn create another aesthetic “problem” to be solved. The second tricky thing is going through these cycles in a way that is not something trite or [insert distasteful word here]. Maybe I’m not sure how to describe what I’m specifically avoiding. Probably kitsch. There are more unmentioned tricky things.
As you can see, I still have not fully jumped off the cliff. The “abstraction” above involves some very recognizable shapes: craggy peaks, a glacial lake from high above, water reflecting the sky, some distant road networks. The chevron-esque shapes invoke migrating birds, hang gliders, proteins folding into themselves, or chromosomes. This unfinished piece is somewhat related to a concept I have been working on called the “shape of life,” or critical, redundant shapes and patterns in nature that iterate at microscopic and macroscopic levels and carry meaning. More to come on this at a later time.
Growing up, we spent two weeks every summer hiking in the Southern tip of grizzly country, the Mission and Swan mountain ranges of Northwestern Montana. Crashing through the mountainside bramble towards the high glacier lakes, we watched for the bear signs: slobber on the huckleberry bush, foul-smelling scat full of indigestible berry husks. We wore jingling bells to reduce the chance we might surprise a foraging bear, carried one loaded magnum in case the worst transpired. At the cabin, we devised an elaborate “bear escape” plan, should our homestead become the target of a hungry ursine burglar. Pervasive in our Montana stories, the grizzly bear was (and still is) a powerful and ominous force in the back of our minds. Luckily, we have not yet initiated the bear escape plan, nor required the loaded magnum on the trail! Continue reading →
I finally “finished” this painting after tabling it 2+ years ago. Sometimes, it takes a long time of living with artwork on your walls, glancing at it every day, before it becomes clear what to do with it next. Now I’m looking back at what I wrote about the work in 2014:
Why “dynamo?” Strictly speaking, “dynamo” indicates a generator of some sort, which converts electrical energy to mechanical energy. I once came across this word in a short story, used to describe a dark forest ravine. I never got away from the imagery of the ravine filled with the energy of frog croaks, insect whirrrs, leaves rustling, water flowing etc. Earth/Nature as limitless battery, endless potential for conversion, transformation and sadly, exploitation … It’s fascinating to observe the world this way and to recreate the exchange of energy in the act of painting, which is itself a form of exchange and re-genesis.
A shadowed, awakening figure rises, recoiling from an intruding “cloud” of morning light. Like smoke or vapor, an effulgence diffuses in through her open window. Her exterior and interior surroundings take shape in response to obliterating illumination – only enough to deepen the mystery of her tiny bedroom and den, which probably yes definitely has hardwood floors and some random, empty (spooky) tables.
This tableau is a large-format piece from 2008, my last year of art school. Scribbles about the progress of this work (eye-opening to look back on now) include thoughts about form and figure construction, the nature of light, and how to technically depict certain “fantastic” qualities of light.
Emerging darkly from the petrified air, a wooden plaque carved onto Smokey The Bear warned fire danger was “extremely dry, extremely high.” No campfires, no grills, no cigarettes, no huckleberries under the desiccating pines of Northwestern Montana. Grandma had texted (expertly, with many emojii) “we can’t see our mountains!” The drive up highway 83 this year, approaching our mountain refuge, was brimming with smoke. Flowing downwind from blazes in Idaho and Washington, the roil blotted out Montana’s Big Sky, tainted the Sun and Moon with toxic orange, and sent Glacier Park road-to-the-sunners scrambling back to the drawing board, travel guides and gas station free attraction brochure stands. Continue reading →
No longer unfinished art as of 5/21/15. This cat face was a nightmare! It feels so good to peel off the tape and see the crisp white borders and put a little signature at the bottom :) Satisfaction. At left: progress on cat portrait… The graphite plan and under-painting. Layer-by-layer glazing approach helped build up colors and thicker surface of the final painting. The biggest challenge here was getting the paint cat to resemble the real cat – minor variations in face structure and lines have a huge impact on recognition, just like on human portraits!
A larger painting from the same time that I was working on “Man With Drapes” and other figurative work inspired by Egon Schiele and some other artists I was thinking about a lot at the time. In this one, my approach was high energy but I admittedly wasn’t thinking through the content, and was not referencing any real models. I think the goal of this piece was more or less to figure out a way of working.
O Feiyue shoe, how can I express my love for you? These paintings are about the ubiquitous canvas and rubber martial arts shoe. My goal is to have four of them to arrange in a set. I have gone through so many pairs of these things since I started martial arts training, wearing holes into the soles on cement, replacing material with duct tape and random extra shoelaces, clumsily teetering around while wearing a fresh pair.
I suppose these qualify as a type of still life, but the Feiyue shoe does not like to be still. No, the shoe demands the dynamic! In accordance with the shoes’ wishes, the paintings recall Kung Fu kicking techniques. An appropriate set title is thus, Mega Kicks! These shoes were made for kicking, and that’s just what they’ll do. And, one of these days, these shoes are going to kick all over you. This post is done.
My treatment of this migrating bird palm tree schematic draft is a hybrid of planning, playing, experimenting with shapes and colors, and journal entry. The thoughts and feelings I have about the work are sort of just poured onto this little sheet of paper and I decide how to use them on the larger piece as I go. It’s another kind of painting palette, maybe, but sans le paint.
Sometimes I have to make a rough draft. Or anyway find a visual means to process the themes in a miniature format before tackling a big working space in the confines of a small studio. This particular piece will eventually be projected onto a 5 x 3 foot canvas so I’ve been playing with this small copy paper version as a way to organize the elements. Honestly at times this feels counter-intuitive, because an energizing part of my work is the reactionary process with changes and transitions. Part of this, though, is that this is a previous painting I’m reworking (see my much earlier post about Shadow Palm, which will essentially be the under-painting). As with any rough draft, though, I can count on the final composition to look and feel much different from the initial, procedural steps.
Finding enough – time – to work on art is the biggest barrier to my practice. Between work, increasing need for sleep, all the personal relationships, worries about school, the daily grind of household and general life/hygienic upkeep, art somehow tends to fall down the priorities ladder to my unending guilt. I know someday I will have more time for art, but it is not an excuse to put it on the back-burner now. Despite this priorities pattern, I’ve been dedicating at least every Wednesday evening, without too many expectations. Last night for instance, I didn’t get much real “painting” in, but I did cut out a lot of cool inkjet prints of myself in various t’ai chi poses for collage elements, as well as work up the above schematic – in which some epic migrating waterfowl are centrally featured!
At times, when feeling guilty about not doing it, art-making becomes a chore. To get past that, I try to just allow myself the “studio time” to do whatever I want with (like cut out nearly nude pics of myself), as long as it is in some way art-related. It’s kind of like stretching; it’s not a full workout, but it’s getting ready for the real stuff. Every artist needs time to reflect, to spread out their tools and their inspirations, and just do what feels fun or productive for that particular mood or moment. Art should never feel like a chore, and when it does, I can’t see how creativity can thrive.
And now for a post about art from the (not so) distant past … Six years ago, I was in art school stretching my own humongous canvases, spending hours and hours pondering and journaling on the perilous possibilities of form, content, and the place of painting. This is a piece I’ve been living with ever since. I think I’ve shown it maybe three times, but for the last several years it has occupied a lonely place in my bedroom. I recently re-hung it on a wall, where paintings belong.
Reconsidering this painting now, having lived with it for so long and having hauled it through at least four different apartments, I have a very physical connection with it. When I was making it, I was really focused on the process, and color/composition work often were placed on the back burner. I was muddling through this sort of “constant revision” approach where I would begin something but refuse to become committed, obscure it, and start again, with the result being a sort of time warp where you can see the flux of several different sketches without a necessarily recognizable “finished” product. Adding to this, I think this particular piece was based on live models, but every 120 seconds or so they would change position, adding to the time lapse effect. This way of working I think was a precursor to my concept of “progression” or “progressive” painting, wherein the process is paramount and the “end” of the work is slippery.
However “unfinished” it was at the time, I haven’t touched it in several years and I think I can say that I probably will not return to anything on this particular canvas … So be it … Let’s call it done!