Monday, June 26, 2006

....and the Art Goes On

Before the Storm (work in progress)

This is the painting I'm currently working on. Like the oil study for Storm and Stone this is oils on gessoed watercolor paper. Someone asked me recently why not paint on canvas? That's a fair question. First, preparing a sheet of watercolor paper for painting is quick and easy. Second, I like the way the brush feels and responds to the rigidity of this tend to get nice expressive brush work as the bristles interact with the hardness. With canvas the surface bows away from the pressure of the brush, which means the hairs tend to stay together and produce a more uniform stroke of pigment. With the gessoed watercolor paper affixed to the 3/4 inch plywood there's little or no give from the surface, so the hairs of the brush tend to splay out more readily producing surprising little nuances. Canvas also stretches under repeated assaults, and I've been known to over aggresively scrape out passages I'm not satisfied with resulting in a spongy and over-relaxed surface. You have the sensation of trying to run a marathon on a trampoline...not pleasant.

I've decided to put off starting the finished version of Storm and Stone until late July. I'm scheduled to attend the Basic Reserve Warrant Officer Course July 17th. The class only lasts two weeks, but they cram the entire 3 months of the Regular Warrant Officer Course into it. How can they do that? Easy, they give you a ton of professional reading to do prior to showing up. So between the reading and going to the gym to get my ancient keester in shape I realized that this was not the time to take on a major work. Instead I'm going to focus on a series of modest finished oil sketches.

In doing these sketches I'm also challenging myself to transition from "drawing" with oils to actually "painting" with them. What the heck does that mean? It means rather than laying down a highly developed drawing and then basically coloring it in, you only put down a cursory sketch and then going at it with large brushes laden with generous amounts of pigment. This forces you to conceive in terms of color and mass, rather than with line and value. Two adjustments I make, due to the normal extended drying time of oils, is to use a mixture of 50/50 light drying oil and copal medium, and alklyd white. This results in a much faster drying time, which means passages can be reworked sooner rather than later.

I don't think I'll ever be a true alla prima painter, but I want to move in that direction. A year ago I was privileged enough to meet and attend a lecture by America's alla prima master, Richard Schmid. The things this artist can do with big brushes is beyond amazing. Mr. Schmid shared an interesting personal anecdote with me, back in the early 1950s he took over the apartment that former WWII Marine combat artist Harry Jackson was sharing with Jackson Pollack.

The unfinished scene I'm sharing with you today is of a patrol base overlooking the village of Khogyani in the foothills of the Tora Bora Mountains near the Wazir Pass. We had just finished a long day of bouncing through the countryside doing a reconnaissance in force. Our main objective was to identify alternative avenues of approach for a future operation slated for the foothills of the Tora Boras on the Pakistani border.

The site selected to set up for the evening was a small terraced hillcock encircled by a chest high irrigation ditch; a perfect defensive position. Perched along this dry ditch lined with river rocks were clusters of mulberry trees. Marines spit up into twos, with one man taking watch while the other dug a fighting hole and set up their tent.

This particular evening was transcendently beautiful. Small groups of shepherd boys wandered out from the village with their flocks of goats and sheep. The air was peppered with the sound of their voices, the occassional thwack of homemade slingshots proding errant animals back into the fold, and the omnipresent hew-hawing of donkeys. The air was so still and sound carrying so far that the Marines could hold conversations easily with the listening post half a kilometer away on an adjoining hill.

As is always the case in the Middle-East, the melodic lilt of an evening prayer floated up from a mosque nestled somewhere amongst Khogyani's maze of mud daub homes and meandering walled streets. By nightfall the boys had drifted off and down in the darkening village doors and windows began to light up with gemlike warmth.

It was the calm before the storm. At about three in the morning a cyclonic thunderstorm rocked our world.


Beth* A. said...

The painting looks great from here. The walk thru the process you give makes the end results all the more fascinating.

And 'ancient keester' - hah! You'll do, Mike Fay. You'll do fine. :-)

Bro. Bartleby said...

You are a wonderfully gifted artist, and I admire your paintings very much. Over the years I've attempted to 'create' on canvas, but I must admit, when viewing paintings by truly gifted individuals as you, I feel that perhaps I should retire my brush and palette forever. Recently I have been contemplating painting icons, I suppose inspired by the Russian movie 'Andrei Rublev.' If you haven't seen it, being an artist, I think you would enjoy the cinematography, the movie is like a painting in progress, beautiful images.

Laurie said...

Very interesting post, as always. My favorite two pictures I own are ones that a friend painted for me. One was a canvas she was unhappy with and she was going to scrap it, but I loved it so she gave it to me. The other was one she was happier with that she gave me as a gift. I hope you are able to get in a little fun the next few weeks while working on the keester.

Bag Blog said...

Your "Patrol Base-Khyogyani" painting looks great - as usual. One day I would like to see your paintings up close and personal. Thanks for answering my questions about painting on gessoed watercolor paper. I can understand why you would prefer the hardness of the plywood verses the give of stretched canvas. Although, I have mangled some watercolor paper by harsh use, I would assume the gesso must protect it well. I am willing to give it a try sometime. Now, my next question has to do with framing your oils. From your work in progress picture, it looks like you do not leave the painting on the plywood. Because it is on watercolor paper, do you hang it like a watercolor, or do you fix it permenantly to a board or stretch it like canvas? I hope you do not mind these questions, but I find your techniques very interesting. By the way, last spring I took a watercolor workshop where the artists used a two-inch brush for quite a bit of his work - it was great. It inspired me to put away my two-haired brush :)