Sep 13, 2009


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So I gone and done it. I painted last week. I painted again today. I'm reminded of the old joke in Mel Brooks' History Of The World movie.

Scene: Rome, an unemployment office line. A CENTURIAN stands in front of the benefits window. BEA ARTHUR dressed in a toga as the UNEMPLOYMENT OFFICIAL questions him:

Bea: Have you killed anyone this week?
Centurian: No.
Bea: Have you TRIED to kill anyone this week?
Centurian: Yes.


So no thanks, no unemployment for me, I've painted every Sunday for the last four weeks in a row. It's a freaking record!

Today was a little strange, though. Usually I have no end of ideas in my head, and a blank canvas has never scared me. Today I decided that I'd put aside the handful of canvases I've already cartooned on, precursors to painting. I wanted to start a study, a test run sort of thing on an idea I've got, an idea that is going to take a big canvas. Specifically one I just finished gessoing early this afternoon.

When I was in college learning how to paint one of the first things we learned in the very first class was how to make our own canvases. The little studio classroom had a waist-high miter box and saw and lots of scrap plywood for corners. The thing being, we had to buy and bring our own raw stock--2x2s and quarter round. We were taught (well, THEY were taught, I already knew basic carpentry) how to miter corners and tack quarter round onto frames, how to measure and square and use triangles of plywood to strengthen corners. Then came the huge rolls of raw canvas, six feet tall and pale tan. We'd roll it out on the floor, lay the newly-constructed and still sweet-smelling wood frame onto it and cut it to rough shape, then get out the heavy duty stapler and staple and stretch, staple and stretch. I learned how to make neatly tucked corners, folded just right, then the buckets of gesso would come out and the four-inch house paintbrushes and we'd start in the middle applying snow white to the tan, working our way to the edges and over until the whole thing was pristine and ready to go.

I always loved the miracle that is gesso. How fabric that I strained my finger muscles on to tighten could suddenly, as the gesso dried, become tight as a snare drum's skin. And the sweet, pale smell of it, it always signaled to me that it was time to create. I built canvases of every size, often building stretchers to fit the odd-sized bit of canvas I had left over from building another stretcher for a class assignment. I'd build canvases a foot tall and five feet long just to see if I could do it, and built canvases so big they took internal cross-bracing to keep from collapsing. I've built canvases so bit it's an effort to carry them. I built a six foot by four foot monster for a class assignment, and got chided for it because I'd spent so much time prepping and building the canvas that I didn't have time to cover the whole thing properly, ending up rushing the assignment. (And still I never beat Bryan, my friend who was a year ahead of me who used to buy and gesso military surplus canvas pup-tents and use three, stretched and nailed together as his floor-to-ceiling canvases.)

Even though the ease of store-bought and pre-prepared canvases quickly took over it never stayed rooted. Today I stripped a pair of experiments off an old stretcher I still had, dug out my roll of raw canvas and with a big bottle of clearance gesso I set to. Rolled out the canvas on the living room floor and went to work. Stretched, stapled, stretched again, then around once with the hammer just to make sure everything was secure. Then the gesso, poured onto an old house brush that I've had since my college days for just such a job. Starting in the center, working my way out to the edges, watching the miracle happen again as the sweet-smelling gesso tightened the canvas up like an old prude's mouth.

Then, that one got set aside. I'm not quite ready to work on that painting, but I did start on a study for it. Started, and it went terribly awry, strangely. I painted on it for perhaps half an hour, hated where it was going, hated what I was doing, and set it aside. Picked up another, one with a cartoon already on it that I didn't care for a great deal (another chess piece study, actually) and took off in a new direction. I'd thought about populating the bottom of my big canvas with some strange little things, and I'd just watched Hellboy II again, and kept remembering the Troll Market, and the two figures who passed through in the background carrying what looked like huge Chinese paper lanterns made like koi fish, only very stylized.

So, I took that idea and worked on it. Practice for myself in making round things look round, practice in using colours outside of my usual palette (not entirely but I don't often go the red-orange-yellow route) and looking at something that I might or might not include in the big canvas, I guess. A dry run so to speak, especially since this particular pair of things isn't part of my usual vocabulary of images.

It was nice to be working, though, smoothly and quickly, which is how I like to paint. Not going entirely into abstract action-painting, and certainly not using the trowel, tho I do love a good trowel-painting, applying pigment so thick it's like spreading cake icing. No, instead just a fast, free application of paint, working at fooling the eye into believing a pair of flat objects are actually round.

The magic worked again, in its own strange way. Hours passed, I completed it, liked it. Set it aside to dry, cleaned up my work area and returned my office back to my office and not my studio. The smell of turps and oil pigment still lingers strong, but it's all put away again until next Sunday afternoon.

I think I need to get my sketchbook out, though. I feel a long-legged harpsichord coming on. Perhaps one with orangey-red almost-fish-lanterns under it. Or perhaps not.

(That white sheen you see isn't actually pigment, it's the wet oil reflecting the flash. Not much way to get around that unless I wait three weeks for it to dry and THEN take the photo, which pretty much ruins the idea of posting photos as I finish these things.)


Rudi said...

Bravo. For the painting (noun) and taking the plunge back into painting (verb).

I have no artistic talent and am constantly amazed that people, yes real live people, can make stuff appear. Sure we've been doing this for 30,000+ years since some cave dude or dudette scrawled on the wall of a French cave but I'm still impressed.

The making of the frames is just like making flats for stage scenery. Except we used fish glue to size them. No sweet smell memories for me.

Gordo said...

Man, I love peering into someone's artistic process.

I'm not sure what those things are or what creature they're attached to, but I like 'em. :-)