Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Desert Willows: A Painting Project


     Some people have asked me how I decide to paint what I paint. The truth of the matter is I am extremely lazy when it comes to painting. I am no tortured artist who has to paint everyday and despair about every stroke of the brush and forget to eat. But on the occasions that I do decide to buckle down and start to paint, I do become a bit obsessive. As to subject matter, I have loads of digital photos in my computer that I look through  and if something catches my interest, I will print it out and tape it on the wall where I proceed to look at it for a few days before I sit down in front of the canvas and do the thing. I prefer to work outdoors (preferably in Italy),  looking at the subject matter, be it a landscape or a building , but because circumstances and especially the weather are not always conducive to this sort of activity, I take photos and work from it in my studio.
   Yesterday, I decided to paint from a photograph I took of a group of desert willows, those ubiquitous trees in the Southwest that paradoxically seem to bloom wildly the hotter the weather gets. The photo was only my starting point, because the trees were in an un-scenic location: beside a bus stop and a traffic-control box.
 Desert Willows

     I started by doing a pencil sketch of the three trees and filling it in with red oil paint ( Cadmium Red). There was no particular reason why I used this type of red. It came in a box of cheap oil paints I bought in Wal-Mart. However, it is standard practice for painters to do so something called an underpainting to define the form and intent of a picture. It's like a map and a starting point without which your painting could end up being a mess (or you could call it "abstract art"  to save face). Red  makes a good underpainting color.
Preliminary Sketch

       Starting a painting is, like any new activity, fraught with uncertainty. I wish I could tell you how this painting is going to look like, but I can't. There are artists who, like master chess players, can already foresee the total look of their work and kudos to them. But a lot of what happens in a painting depends on the material you use, your state of mind, even on the music you're listening to while you're painting ( I listen to opera and jazz). I decided to use oil for this project because my previous three paintings had been in acrylic and I thought oil seems so much more lustrous than plastic pigment. But painting in oil is also a very messy affair, necessitating loads of turpentine and paper towels.
      My next step was to put in some kind of a background to the trees and I came up with this.

   I based the background on the general color of the soil and the boundaries of the scene (beside the wall of the El Paso Zoo). In fact I was intending to put in the wall behind it, but this changed over the course of the painting. I then liberally applied a green paint (it's called "sap green", don't ask me why) to define the general areas where the foliage would be.
     At this point the painting looked like something you could stencil onto something, like a shirt or a poster. Three colors, perfect! But because this was an art project with certain ambitions, I  moved to put in Alizarin Blue mixed with white to fill in the sky above. I also dabbed in pink spots to indicate the flowers of the desert willows.

Now, if I was a ten year old   and produced something like this, mom would have  been pleased and tacked it on the refrigerator door and proclaimed me a genius! But of course, I'm not a ten-year old (though I'd like to be, with the name "Nechita"  or some super-hyped kid-painter), so I soldiered on to muddle further.

     The shadow beneath the trees was the result of an accident. To indicate shadows, I thought I'd do a Howard Behrens and  do a palette painting, the sort where you just use the palette knife, not the brush, to paint. So I ladled in lots of blue mixed with red, to disastrous results. I abandoned the Behrens' move (palette painting is not as easy as it looks and besides you need lots of paint) and wiped the blue off, leaving the dark residue behind. At this point I thought of slashing the canvas and turning on the TV to watch "True Blood".  However, I decided to try once more and salvage the painting by taking a small palette knife and scraping away at the shadows to indicate litle blades of grass. Tedious, but something to do. I also scraped away little round spots on the ground  to indicate sunlight filtering in through the leaves. I also painted in a blue-green mixture among the foliage because in real life, some leaves are in the shadows and some out in the sunlight.
     At this point, I ran out of white paint, so I couldn't put in more flowers on the trees, like in the reference photo above. Also, I was a little bothered because these trees looked more like giant rose bushes rather than desert willows. Desert willows have very thin, spindly leaves. Ah, but, I reasoned to myself, I was not painting a botanical guide, but a painting that in the end made some kind of aesthetic sense.Still, I scraped away at the green paint with the palette knife to suggest willow leaves.   My next step was to refine the contours of the tree trunks, smooth out the sky with my finger (van Gogh used to do it and even licked the tips of his brushes, oil and all!) I also decided that, since desert willows thrived in the  desert, they should have a desert background. That initial angle formed by the yellow ground was now the peak of a distant mountain. I added another mountain on the right side to balance it out.

     I thought there was still  something lacking in the painting. It still didn't move me, even if I'd huffed and puffed and drank two glasses of cheap merlot over it. What was it? The shadows. Not enough of them. I loathed dabbing more color into the ground because I was sure I was going to mess it up again. Then it occurred to me.:painting is as much about erasing  as putting in pigments. To my aid came something that was lacking in van Gogh's day: Q-tips, lots of  them, dipped in turpentine. I used  Q-tips to define the  areas where the sunlight filtered in through the leaves into the ground. I also used Q-tips to lighten the landscape and smooth out tight corners. This was the result:

Desert Willows©mannypanta2011

              I may still  tweak this painting, clean it up a bit, dab in more flowers once I receive the tube of white paint I ordered from Ebay. On the whole, something in me  tells me that the painting now seems to work. Do you agree? Yeah, it can't be any farther from the original  photo, but hey, who wants to paint a photo?.

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