Sunday, April 25, 2010

Glazing, Part I

I keep going back and forth on whether or not it's the way to go with the current oil portrait I'm working on.  As originally conceived - for many reasons that I'll get into at a later date - the subject practically demanded that the painting take on the look of a Northern Renaissance work.  Meaning oil pigment on wood panel, done in a technique known as glazing.  Simply described - and the concept is simple - you apply the paint in translucent layers, using a glazing medium (linseed oil is a common one) to thin the pigment.  Layer on top of layer, building colors, not blending them.  The idea is to get the colors to become more luminous, although in my case, the goal is to stay as true to the technique of the original masters as possible.

Of course, while the concept is simple, the execution is hellishly tricky.  Yet another regret I have from my time at RISD is that I didn't take a class in Renaissance painting technique, but I was a horrible painter at the time and didn't seem to have any hope of improving, so taking what amounted to a master class (as I recall it being described at the time) seemed like a semester of frustration and failure, given how poorly I'd done in the basic oil classes.  I'm fairly sure the teacher would have agreed.  I did not distinguish myself.

One of the surprising things, however, as I approach 40, I find that many of the handicaps I had as a younger artist have fallen away.  Whether this is indicative of some kind of mental block on my part or just the benefits of maturity (or senility) - or some combination thereof - I can't say.  But the things that used to be impossible for me to accomplish have now moved to the box labelled 'pain in the ass.'

The way that the impossibility would manifest itself was in my sheer inability to finish a painting.  Every painting from college that I did, save one, shared the same fate.  Approximately halfway there, I would hit a wall and be unable to proceed any further.  Complete blindness - I couldn't see what I was supposed to be doing and I couldn't see how to get there.  So the half-finished canvas went on the pile, and I took whatever grade it was that the (it must be said) completely disinterested teachers felt appropriate.

I've had a few fits and starts with painting over the last eight years or so.  The first attempted comeback was a portrait of my dad in celebration of his 60th birthday.  It sits unfinished in my basement, so I had not, as yet, gotten past my issues/difficulties.  A 60th portrait of my mother met the same fate (although I barely even got started on that one).  There may have been one or two more, and then I started teaching at ROCA and was invited to participate in the faculty show, and I determined that my comic work wasn't going to be punchy enough, and I needed to have a painting in there.

Yesenia was kind enough to sit for me, and then I had a window of about 72 hours to do the final painting.  I ranted and railed against the work, as I used to, and yet, somehow, I made it through.  It must be said that the final work was pretty mediocre and really looked amateurish in the exhibit (not my cartooning, though, which was something I knew how to do and it showed).  But that's beside the point.  It was a start, and I could build from there.

I haven't suddenly turned into a painting machine, and I still have major problems working, but I seem to be working, and that's a victory.

Anyway: glazing.  What led to the digression was my lamentation that I don't have any real grounding in oil technique, and glazing is a technique all to itself.  And no matter how much research I did in advance (not as much as I should have, but still enough), I knew that there would be things I did not know and could not anticipate.  I had known that the technique draws dust like crazy, and I saw that pretty much right away.  And I had known that increased medium - oil, that is - meant increased drying time, which meant longer waits between working. 

What I hadn't predicted was what is fairly obvious in hindsight: increased oil means increased viscosity.  The first couple of rounds with the glazing, I loved the technique so much that I really started to ladle the linseed oil on.  I finished for the day and went about other business, and when I checked back in, the painting had begun to melt, slowly but horribly.  I was working on an easel - as I normally do when I paint - and gravity ensured that the background just kept flowing and flowing.  I eased the angle back as far as I could on the easel and for four straight days, I would check in on it every few hours and use a flat brush to clean up the spill as best I could.  It was less like painting at this point than like working on a superfund site.  Finally, it stopped, but it did the job of scaring me off the technique, and I went back to flat paints.

This one's getting long - I'll pick up tomorrow.


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