Unfinished Business

Many people, especially non-painters, have little idea what goes on before a finished piece is produced. I think every artist has been asked from time to time how long it takes to make a painting. The question is not answerable. We are always collecting material, we are always making sketches – many of which never amount to anything – and we start and stop working on a particular piece many times, sometimes over months or years. We make paintings that just aren’t that good and we end up destroying them. And there are the years we’ve spent developing skills in order to do the work at all. For these reasons I have decided to let people in on the behind the scenes activity in my studio by talking about work that I’m in the middle of – two unfinished paintings that I think have a good chance of ultimately hanging on a gallery wall, or someone’s wall. I could be wrong, of course.

The working titles for these are “Shoes” and “Selfie” respectively.

Shoes 4
Shoes stage 4, oil, 24 x 20″
Selfie stage 4, oil, 20×20″

I try not to think about what will sell; that kind of thinking is deadly for creativity. When I walk into my studio every day and look at my unfinished work the only thing I worry about is how to develop it into finished paintings that are emotionally evocative and – my mantra – “a feast for the eyes”. I usually attend one or two three-hour life painting sessions every week. Some of the paintings and drawings I make in those sessions become the basis for more developed works. “Shoes” is one such painting, but “Selfie” is from a photograph of a friend that I used with her permission.

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Experiments with Underpainting

If you have read my earlier posts you know that I usually begin a painting over an already painted canvas. This could be an old painting that I no longer want or it could be a new canvas that I intentionally paint with a variety of interesting strokes, shapes and colors. Creating a new underpainting lets me use canvases of whatever size and shape I like. This is important because I find I’m making larger painting of this type than the ones I used to make. I don’t want to be confined to smaller canvases!

Underpainting in Oils
An underpainting done in oils

For an underpainting to work effectively, I need it to have a good palette, some bold shapes and strokes, and enough texture so that when I paint over it I can scratch down again and reveal the original colors in unexpected ways.

At first, I tried making an underpainting the same way I usually paint, using oils and a gel medium. But this takes a long time to dry which is pretty frustrating when you really want get started. So I got some Gamblin Galkid Lite to mix with the paint. It’s supposed to dry quickly but hold the texture of the brush/knife strokes. I managed to make one underpainting with this medium (which ended up as “Organized Life” seen in an earlier post) but found that mixing it straight with paint makes a very thick glop that is hard to manage. Then I discovered that Galkid Lite is intended to be thinned with a solvent. I never use solvents (I’m very sensitive to them all), so this turned out not to be a good solution for me.

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The Fragility of an Organized Life

So far I have posted works done using an older painting as an underpainting. Of course that could be pretty limiting. Both the colors and the textures in the underpainting are important to me but I didn’t always have an old painting of the size and shape I wanted, so I had to make some intentionally. I used one of those underpaintings for a piece that I titled “Organized Life”.

Organized Life
Organized Life, oil, 24 x 24″

This is an interior painting of the “organizer” and its environs in my studio. The underpainting was done in a lot of purples and blues plus a few greenish yellows. It turned out to be a great color for the shadow areas and most of the shadow areas in the finished work are the untouched underpainting. I also let that same color appear as the two bottle shapes and surface of the table on which the organizer and fax machine rest. Continue reading “The Fragility of an Organized Life”


It sounds like it should be easy to create a distorted figure, but I found it rather difficult to get myself to overcome years of work getting the proportions right! I started with a photo of a model that I had taken at a life painting session. The model was a nice looking, normally proportioned young woman sitting in a chair. I just drew and redrew her longer and longer until I got an elongated version of the figure that stretched diagonally across the whole canvas – distorting the chair along with the figure. The composition was not so great, though, so I decided to use one of my go-to strategies to balance the composition: add a dog.

In the Parlor
In the Parlor, oil, 16 x 12″
Man_and_Dog - 7
Man and Dog

I love putting dogs into paintings with people. There is always an implied relationship between the dog and the human. One of my artistic heroes for this kind of thing is Lucian Freud. Look up his “Double Portrait” and “Triple Portrait” for a couple of wonderful examples. My flattened painting in my previous post, Man and Dog, portrays a relationship of trust and comfortable familiarity – although in a very un-Freudian way.

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A Detour through Flatland

One way to abstract an image is to render it as an interlocking set of flat, colored shapes. This is somewhat foreign to me because I am such a 3D thinker, but I wanted to try this kind of painting anyway. I seemed to me that flattening techniques might pop up in my work later on to enrich the more dimensional images that I usually create.

I found an old photo of my husband and our dog sitting on our kitchen sofa (I highly recommend having a sofa in the kitchen if you have the space for it). The imagery was straightforward and it seemed to lend itself to making large, expressive shapes. I used a 24 x 24″ white canvas. A lot of the thinking went into the drawing at the beginning. Once the big forms were worked out, most of the painting concerned color choices and adjusting and fine tuning the shapes.  I dealt with the face by not really painting a face. It ended up being just a head shape with the suggestion of a shadow on one side. I find that getting the shape right is critical, but other than that, you don’t need to put much in for people feel satisfied with what they see.

Man_and_Dog - 7
Man and Dog, oil, 20 x 20″

One of my favorite things is life is the shapes that a newspaper makes when someone holds it up to read. I enjoyed using the newspaper to create a nice set of shapes breaking up the man image and extending the whiteness of the dog shape. I used just a hint of shading throughout, but my main focus was the composition of light and dark, and the way the shapes interlock with each other creating wonderful lines between them.

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A little progress

That first figural abstraction got me excited but I  needed to know that I could do it again. Like most artists, I have in my studio quite a number of bad to mediocre paintings. Using two more failed paintings from my depressingly large collection, I soon had two more pieces that I actually liked: Tourist and Hot Jazz.

Creating these kinds of paintings draws on all the skills and knowledge of painting that I have been developing for the past twenty or so years. The ability to draw and specifically to draw the figure accurately and quickly is critical. The first step in this process is to make an outline drawing of the figure onto a very complex and distracting background which compounds the difficulty of drawing a good, expressive figure.

One of the hardest things in figural abstraction is dealing with faces. As soon as you add eyes and/or a mouth, the face becomes much too demanding and specific. One way to avoid this is to have the figure turned away, thus avoiding the whole problem of facial features. That worked to my advantage in Tourist.

Tourist, oil, 16 x 12″

“Tourist” is based on a photograph my husband took of me in Havana Cuba last March. I was attracted to the billowy shirt but I never got pants to look right so I ended up painting in a skirt. In the underneath painting there was a hydrangea which became the shirt, and an american flag which I managed to retain in a suggestive way behind and breaking through the figure.

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The Journey Begins

I’ve been an artist for about 15 years, working almost exclusively in oils and charcoal but with occasional forays into encaustics (painting with pigmented, molten wax). In the past few years, I’ve been making representational paintings of the things I see around me. This has gone well enough but I kept coming back to my first love which is the human figure and, by extension, animal figures. My interest in those is mainly body language and gesture as well as beauty of form. But literalness in figure work got in the way. I wanted to use figures to create something emotional and evocative. To that end, I tried to make my figures more abstract. I was struggled with that for a long time but could not find a satisfactory way into abstraction until I took an online course called “Abstracting the Figure” from Melinda Cootsona. That course opened the door for me and my work took a definite turn. Now I’m really playing with paint, ideas emerge easily and each painting gives me more ideas for another. This blog is my journey into a new art realm.

Food for Thought – my first real figural abstraction in paint

Food for Thought
oil on canvas, 16 x 12″

I had painted this pose once or twice before but was never happy with the result until I started with an old painting that I turned upside down and painted over, allowing quite a bit of the original painting to show through. Working back and forth, scraping out and adding in, the original painting provided so many wonderful visual ideas that I could meld with the figure I was painting. I paint mostly with a palette knife, so the original painting also provided quite a bit of texture and that makes it possible for layers of color to emerge through each other. Below is a slide show of the stages the painting went through.

This became my first “way in” to abstraction. I titled it Food for Thought, partly because the figure looks thoughtful but mostly because, for me, it was literally food for thought, and I found it nourishing.

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