Once again I get in the Way-Back Machine to write about my art. I dug up some old slides I took back in the late 80s of my student paintings I made way back in the spring of 1988 (excuse the scratches and dirt on the slides). This was the second semester that I got to work on “My” painting. After spending the first semester on a series of twenty four by thirty six inch painting I scaled things up. These two paintings that I’ve posted here are about four feet wide by three feet tall. That makes the figures about life size. This was about the largest size I could fit in my studio back in art school. It’s still about the largest size I can fit in my studio these days but I hardly ever make paintings this big anymore. I don’t have the room to store them.

Once again these are all about me learning how to paint. I learned slowly and methodically. One of the things I added this semester was drawing from life. Instead of drawing my comic strip characters or other characters out of my head I drew this figures from life. Mostly from me in the mirror with strange heads added on but in my final semester I used live models a few times. That changes the nature of the imagery a bit and grounds the figure in real life a bit more and makes the weird things going on around it a little weirder.

Unfortunately these paintings defy reproduction. You really can’t tell from the scans of slides but all of that white paint is painted. It’s probably about an eighth of an inch thick with white paint and the direction of the brush stroke is a uniform up and down. That’s another thing I was working on as I was learning to paint. Brush strokes and what to do with them. In the beginning here I kept them all the same. Up and down. But as I learned to paint I varied the way I laid the paint down. The same color paint put down with a horizontal stroke looks different than if laid down with a vertical stroke. That’s because of the way the light hit it. The paintings I made actually had a “Grain” like a piece of wood that I could control. Surface is a very important part of painting. That’s what people don’t know if they only see reproductions of paintings.

The second aspect of these paintings that get lost is the black line. First off I was using mostly a single weight black line. Sure that was some variation in the line weight because I couldn’t resist adding some but I was trying to avoid using too many drawing techniques because I didn’t want these to be about the drawing. Clearly I had a lot of learning to do in the drawing department but I wanted these to be about me learning to paint so I cut back on the drawing challenges.

The black line also has less surface than the white. I painted the black line in thin watery paint so it only has as much surface as the gessoed canvas. I then took the white or color paint and applied it after the black paint was dry. The white and color paint has the consistency of soft butter and I pushed it up to the black line and then drew my brush away from the line. This paint pushing technique was suggested to me by a teacher who said that’s how the painter Mondrian often put down paint. It works well when you need a clean paint-on-paint edge and has served me nicely all these years. It also leaves a bead of white paint next to the black line that emphasizes the change in surface. If you could see these paintings in person in looks like the black line was cut out of the white paint.

My use of color gets more complex in these paintings too. Sure it’s still limited to just a few colors in a few shapes but I’m playing with the space that the colors create a lot more. For example the way I use color in the round bubble in the first painting distorts space in such a way that the eye has a hard time settling it all down. The smaller orange space drops back against the yellow while the light green moves forward against the blue. All while the image of that little creature in the bubble tries to sit still in space. That’s the main intersection in this painting.

There are less dramatic things happening elsewhere in painting as I was trying to push and pull on the space using the geometry of the color shapes and the composition in general. In treating the paint surface as I was with all that heavily applied white paint I was also trying to use the negative space, the space around the things, to define the space. In that first painting with the bubble I tried to make the space on either side of the main figure (the man holding up a stick) as important as the figure itself. I tired to make it like there were three columns. The pace between the couch and the man, the man, and the space between the man and the edge of the canvas. Like three tick marks on a pice of paper but blurring where the tick marks end and the paper begins. Hardly indistinguishable but maybe a little blurry.

I have one more thing to say about these paintings. Something a teacher told the class once that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “Overlap creates space. Forget cool colors recede and warm colors move forward overlap is the best way to create space”. I had never heard that said before and he was right. Draw something in front of something else and it creates a space between them. He was talking about literal things but I used that with my blocks of color. Put a block of color behind something and it sits behind it. Make that color block just the right color and shape and the eye moves it forward in space fighting against the space created by the overlap. This was another concept I was working with and learning as I made these paintings. I like learning.