Tuesday, December 4, 2007
'Prairie Fires' - 24x24 - oil on linen - 2007
I'm revisiting the subject of the little pastel 'Spring' in the seasonal pastel series. Painters of the past especially, and present, have made a practice of painting many versions of a chosen subject. Sometimes as preparatory studies for larger pieces, as an evolving examination of the subject to get to know it more intimately, and sometimes to try to 'get it right' for once! The latter is one of my motivations, the other is that I just found that day of painting to be full of lessons. The little field sketch is not much to look at, but here it has provided me with two other paintings so far. Both very different from each other, but both built from the information gained from that one little 9x12. That is why field study is SO important to painters. It is the information building activity for our mental reference library.
This time I was really interested in changing up the shape of the canvas from the long and narrow to square and to see if I could portray the same vast landscape that was relatively easy to accomplish in the pastel version. Easy, in that the wide horizontal format is a ready made wide angle view. A square tends to want to center things for you. To avoid that, I made a point of designing the lines to move towards the lower left where the intensity of the burn is in it's most concentrated state. The smoke plume emanates from that point, the fire is most intense at that point, and that is the point at which we can see that the wind is moving from left to right, the smoke making the wind visible. That's what provides the movement to the painting, another thing that you have to be careful not to stall out in a square format. At least, this is my thinking about it all.
Once again I'm using my favorite Studio Products Flake White and the Yarka 'fine' grade linen with an alkyd priming. I read an article about the painter/pastelist Wolf Kahn the other day. His large (5, 6, 7+ feet) paintings have a beautiful surface of layered, thin paint. He talked about his painting technique briefly in the article. He talked about painters of the past and how they knew how to layer a thin veil of color on a canvas, and to then layer additional veils of color over that, as a lost or at least disappearing aspect of current painting technique. A lot of the paintings we see now are composed of heavy layered opaque paint. Pounds of paint applied 'alla prima'. Don't get me wrong, I love a good juicy painting as much as anyone. But there's also a beauty in veils of scumbled on color, transparency against heavy paint. Think of Turner, Inness, Sickert, and many of the other deceased painters. The jewel like surface of their paintings is so wonderful to look at, like looking into the inside of a sea shell's opalescent surface.
In the painting I've posted, I've also gone for that sort of treatment in the sky, smoke and even in the foreground. The actual paint applied to the canvas is very thin, using the undertone (a warm sienna) to add the warmth to the blue of the sky, and the warmth in the lighter value of the smoke. The flake white is a great paint for this way of working as it thins and can be scumbled onto the fine weave of the linen I've used for it.
"Oil paint needs only to be thinned by the vigour of its application" Walter Sickert. This is what I'm talking about.
PS-Never mind that the most recent evidence in Pratricia Cornwell's work suggests that he was the 'Jack the Ripper'!