Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “painting”

Blood Rituals: Redux

Photoshoots for last year’s Blood Rituals series of still life paintings yielded several interesting macros which did not fit the aesthetic of classical still life that evolved out of my initial brainstorming sessions. I extracted four compositions from these photos, and after perfecting them in the digital darkroom, recreated them as hyperrealist oil paintings. This miniseries pursues a different avenue of exploration of the same subject matter, presenting another aspect of my artistic vision and skill set as a painter.

These claustrophobic and intimate closeups border on the abstract, as the complex color patterns of wrinkled plastic bags and condensation covered glass lose their original context of setting and scenery. Within this unfamiliar space, the jarring appearance of blood is a beautiful, rich and vibrant color that makes these compositions pop, while providing symbolic depth. The narrative of what’s happening and why is largely absent from these images–intentionally–as they strive for a disorienting sense of wonder by honoring the genre of true photorealism. Uncanny likeness to the “real” provides an illusion that in turn may open up new ways of perceiving the ordinary, mundane objects of the world around us.

Our physical reality contains infinite detail, but to help us move efficiently through the world, our brains eliminate much of what our eyes are capable of perceiving. When given an up close, sustained glimpse of the material complexity we inhabit, the result is often overwhelming, surreal, and disorienting, as our simplified view explodes with new detail. This is the point at which assumptions and certainties are compelled to crumble, opening the intellectual space for new truths to be realized and deeper understanding to form.

 

BLOOD RITUALS: REDUX

(untitled), oil on linen panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

 

(untitled), oil on linen panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

 

(untitled), oil on linen panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

 

(untitled), oil on linen panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2017

In The Studio 5: Reworking Plein Air Landscapes

Something I’ve never been a fan of doing is revisiting older paintings after some time has passed. The process of reconstructing or even merely re-approaching the original mindstate, inspiration, and vision for the painting feels spiritually regurgitative in some unclean way. Like digging up a dead issue in a relationship with your partner. I’ve never been one to want to dwell in the past, favoring the pursuit of new goals and the exploration of new territory over the retread of old ground.

But since embarking on a landscape painting journey over the past few years I’ve seen some of the masters of the genre doing just this–picking up old plein air studies to breath new life into them, perhaps making them more presentable as a truly finished piece to a buying audience–and had stared at some of my early plein air studies long enough to realize how I too could push the sense of drama or atmosphere in them.

View From The Studio, before (L) and after glaze layer.

Not to mention, more hours logged in the practice of landscape painting, more hours logged studying weather and outdoor light with more intention and discernment, has had the natural and inevitable effect of expanding my critique ability of what I’ve previously done as well as eased some of my fears about ruining those original results. This shift is the tangible, or at least quantitative, proof that learning is happening–awesome!

So in a brief fit of discontented boredom lately I pulled a few early landscapes off the wall and put my glazing knowledge learned from many hours of studio still life painting to use on some formerly alla-prima studies that looked a little flat.

Oil glazing truly does replicate the phenomenon of translucent–but not completely transparent–atmosphere that we live in and see through every time we gaze into the distance. Which makes it a perfect tool in the landscape painter’s skillset. For advanced stages of realism in any genre I find it to be absolutely indispensable, and enjoyed the practice of applying it to my new pursuit of landscape painting mastery.

A little 4 x 6 inch study of my former backyard bridge, given a more dramatic late afternoon shadow treatment.

Blood Rituals in Skin Deep (UK)

I’ve had the good fortune of my recent exhibition of new paintings being featured in the latest issue of Britain’s most popular tattoo art magazine, on sale now. Many thanks to Skin Deep and Barbara Pavone for the interview opportunity.

Hanging in the other half of Sacred Gallery alongside my paintings this past November and December were recent works by friend and fellow tattooer/painter Jon Clue–a series called Ritual Magic.

Our interviews and artwork were combined into one great feature article that you can read and see in its entirety below. Click on each image to view it at full size.

P.S. See my last several blog posts for more press and content related to the Blood Rituals series…

P.P.S. Which is still in progress despite the exhibit in NYC being over! One new piece was added to the site here, with a few more expected to be completed in the coming months. Please contact me for pricing and purchase inquiries.

Blood Rituals Review, Part 2

After completing the review of my recent gallery show that I mentioned in my last blog post, staff writer at tattoodo.com Ross Howerton sent me some more in depth questions to learn more about the origins of the series. This interview made it into another stellar review of the exhibit on tattoodo.com, which you can read at the following link:

“These insanely realistic still lifes at Sacred Tattoo tap into mankind’s deepest veins.”

Source: Nick Baxter Draws Inspiration from His Own Blood | Tattoodo

 

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Banquet Of Suffering, oil on panel, 18 x 24 inches, 2016

For even more in-depth commentary that didn’t make it into the article, here is the complete interview:

RH: How does working in different mediums, like tattooing and painting, affect you artistically?

NB: Each medium feeds off of and informs the other, in a cycle of experimentation and learning that results in a more well-rounded skillset.

RH: What is your favorite medium to work in?

NB: For pure, unfiltered expression with deep symbolism I prefer painting, but for more illustrative or graphic work, and especially for the collaborative creative process between client and artist, tattoos are a perfect outlet for other aspects of my creativity.

RH: As far as painting goes, you seem to have a preference for working in realism; why is that?

NB: I love form—the way light illuminates the world we perceive—and I love seeing the illusion of a reality that’s so convincing it can transport your mind into the world of the painting.

There’s a subtler aspect of realism that I also enjoy, which occurs with the most convincing pictorial illusions: that brief moment of disorienting wonder, a tiny temporary crack in the veneer of mundane certainty when the viewer who thought they were looking at a photograph realizes that’s not at all what it is. I’ve heard that moment described as the point where “emotional certainties waver, and taste loses its bearings.” I like trying to access that vulnerable place with what I do, I think an artwork can be impactful there.

RH: How and why did you first become inspired to use your own blood as a reference point for your oil paintings in Blood Rituals MMXVI?

NB: For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the human body, the medical sciences, and all that’s hidden within us that makes us what we are. Blood in particular is such a powerful and universal symbol of life, and ironically, of death as well. I wrote in my artist statement for the exhibit at Sacred Gallery in New York City that blood “is the liquid life force that feeds our physical vessel, the container of our soul. Its hidden presence sustains us; the breach beyond its borders horrifies us. It plays an ever-present and meaningful role in the human lexicon, as a symbol of love and sacrifice, of familial bond and battle alike, its deep scarlet hue representative of passion and our most powerful, primal urges.”

I’ve had my share of exposure to it through routine bloodletting procedures I must undergo for a condition of iron overloading in my blood called Hemochromatosis. Over the years I’ve compiled quite a nice collection of reference material from these sessions, which of course set the creative gears in motion over what to make with it, and eventually the idea of the Blood Rituals series was sparked. Luckily I had the help of my dear phlebotomist friend through this process, and her arm appears in the exhibit’s large centerpiece painting as the only bit of a human figure depicted in the entire series.

But one of my primary goals, or hopes, with this series is to use blood imagery and symbolism in a way that doesn’t evoke the shock value of gore or the campiness of the horror genre, and I’m not trying to comment on a specific medical condition or treatment. So I wanted to surround it with unlikely juxtapositions and temper its visual power with an understated classical sensibility.

My use of blood-related subject matter has several layers of symbolism, from personal struggle and loss to the brutality inherent in all human civilizations, ancient and modern. I hope these images cut through any immediate reactions of fright or repulsion to access the vulnerable state of emotional freshness or tenderness that lies at the core of all our psyches. The fact that it intersects with my personal life makes blood more powerful for me as subject matter, and I hope some of that translates to the viewer.

RH: What was it like doing such an intensive artistic study on your own blood?

NB: I had a lot of fun with it. Blood is just fun to paint, because it’s a living liquid that does so many things. Of course it’s visceral and shiny and incredibly vibrant in color, but it also separates, clots, coagulates, dries and cracks, forms bubbles, changes color. It presents so many great artistic possibilities, to say nothing of its powerful symbolic potential.

RH: Why did you choose to paint only still lifes for Blood Rituals MMXVI?

NB: Still life is my original genre, the one I learned foremost in art school and have the most comfort and familiarity with. I love the other classical genres too though, so I included a small nod to landscapes and figurative work in the series’ large centerpiece mentioned above, called Pull Me Through Time.

RH: Do you consider the paintings in Blood Rituals MMXVI as still lifes or self-portraits?

NB: Primarily they’re still lifes, as most of the symbolism is impersonal enough to have universal meaning, and many of the arrangements are mysterious enough to invite multiple narratives or interpretations.

However, they are all quite intimate to me, carrying personal narratives inspired by certain events and struggles in my life, featuring various objects I’ve collected over the years. And needless to say, the blood I used for reference is me, in a very literal and existential way.

One of the paintings is actually intended to be a much more direct reference to the self-portrait, and it’s titled as such. The viewer is invited to interpret the objects as parts of me and the arrangement as representative of my existence.

RH: How would you recommend that viewers try to interpret the profound oil paintings in Blood Rituals MMXVI?

NB: I love when people viewing my work engage with it deeply enough, and are informed enough generally about visual art, to formulate their own ideas about it. Hearing these is always fascinating to me; they’re like a mirror, reflecting back to me the effects of my visual communication, the aspects of it or elements within it that spoke something to someone. As an artist and a maker of visual communication, I can always learn valuable insights from these.

On the other hand, I created this series with a very specific artistic vision and a premeditated intention, and with that comes the desire for people to engage with the images from a certain mindset. There are layers of symbolism and art-historical references that some viewers probably wouldn’t know how to decode without some prompting, so I included the artist statement quoted above with the exhibition, for those curious to know where I’m coming from.

Aside from the statement, when a viewer sees the gallery show, I’d feel like the works achieved their aim if that viewer felt a quiet somber darkness, and the existential sadness of loss, which is something all the paintings depict in one form or another. The blood is lost from the body, the weathered shelves and rusted metal have lost their former shine, the skulls and various bones, the wilted flowers, the tattered books—all have lost. But all still remain.

I imagine viewers perhaps also piecing together a loose semblance of a story being told by the remnants of some mysterious recent event—the artifacts left behind in the form of a still life arrangement. But I don’t need them necessarily to feel what I feel, or anything in particular, I just hope that they feel something.

RH: Just to give us a sense of the symbolism behind your still lifes, what meaning do you intend a piece like “Banquet of Suffering” to convey?

NB: Speaking of stories, I wrote a short parable about that particular piece, as an accompaniment to a future publishing of the series in book form:

“In a world much like ours, there was a race of conquerors who spread death far and wide to finance their empire. They drained all the land of its lifeblood to hoard it for themselves and hunted those who dared oppose, a once vibrant population now reduced to a grizzled band of vagabonds and scavengers.

One autumn eve, as frost turned the last of the green to black and night descended, this race of false heirophants and infant gods and gluttons gathered for a feast to celebrate their conquest. Drunk with power, intoxicated by greed, they gorged themselves deep into the night. Grown soft in their decadence, gloating in their spoils, they grew accustomed to the dark–indeed, foolishly thought their revelry would never end.

But eventually the morning did come, as it always does.

In the cool dawn, scavengers found the remnants of depraved merriment: a candle still burning, blood still fresh in silver bowls, chunks of bread and flesh as if frozen in mid-bite. They ate from the scraps and sipped cautiously, weary and watching for their vanished oppressors. As the rising sun revealed the murky depths of the banquet hall, they saw the bloated corpses, and realized with sudden relief that they were safe: the conquerors had gorged themselves to death.”

RH: Do you have a favorite painting from Blood Rituals MMXVI and why?

NB: I don’t have a favorite. I think some are more successful on an artistic level than others, in terms of vision and execution, but this is just a technical self-critique.

Each piece carries its own particular meaning for me, and the process of developing each into its final form contains a series of memories, problem solving, and minor struggles, so they are all important and meaningful to me in unique ways.

RH: What draws you to painting landscapes?

NB: I’ve always been a nature lover, plain and simple, with an explorer’s urge instilled in me by my father, to adventure in the lesser-traveled and wild places of this planet. I’ve been determined lately to combine this with my artistic passion, so painting landscapes is a natural fusion of two important parts of myself. I especially enjoy the raw directness of plein air painting, which is an old term meaning on location, out in the elements. It’s a great counterpart to my controlled finesse process of studio painting.

RH: As a painter and tattooist, who and what are some of your greatest influences?

NB: Classical realism painters from antiquity and modern times, photorealism and its various offshoots beginning in the 60’s and 70’s, and too many other genres, periods, muses, artists, and amazing tattooers to name. I’m lucky to call some of them friends and colleagues.

RH: Do you have any other art projects currently in progress and, if so, what?

NB: For now, I’m just continuing to paint a few more related still life ideas that couldn’t make the gallery show deadline, as well as attempting some more complex and larger scale landscapes.

Additionally, I ended up culling a few pieces from the Blood Rituals series in order to keep the desired aesthetic and narrative intact, as a few of them veered into pure photorealism and lost touch with classical still life. In the future those outcasts will form their own offshoot series, since I love photorealism just as much as I love classical realism, and they turned out just as good as the ones that made it into the series.

Blood Rituals Review

“Beautiful paintings of blood and bones at a gorgeous gallery in NYC.”

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There’s a fantastic review of the recent gallery exhibit BLOOD RITUALS MMXVI that was just posted today on www.tattoodo.com. Many thanks to Ross at Tattoodo! Read it here:

Ritual Magic and Blood Rituals MMXVI at Sacred Tattoo | Tattoodo

 

The entire series can now be viewed here on this site, just click on the link in the lefthand site navigation column.

 

BLOOD RITUALS MMXVI: Progress Montage

Here’s another video featuring work from my forthcoming series of new paintings “Blood Rituals,” debuting at Sacred Gallery in NYC November 12th.

Shown in this video are the paintings “Quantum Of Sustenance” (oil on linen, 12 x 16 inches), “Banquet Of Suffering” (oil on linen, 18 x 24 inches), and “Pull Me Through Time” (oil on linen, 26 x 40 inches), along with various progress shots of my layering and glazing processes.

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On The Road 12: Spring and Summer Plein Air Adventures

I’ve been so busy painting in the studio for an upcoming exhibition of all new still lifes (announcements soon!) that I forgot to post about my spring and summer landscape painting fun.

Part I: April

At the beginning of April I was in Arizona, where as soon as I get out of Phoenix, I’m reminded why it’s one of my favorite nature states: so much variety of vast and mentally cleansing wild terrain! On this trip I had the good fortune of being able to paint the low desert in the south and then venture north of Flagstaff to paint the completely different high desert plains.

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Salt River, Tonto National Forest, oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches, 2016

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High Plains, Wupatki National Monument, oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches, 2016

Part II: May

In late April I headed to the motherland of classical art for some work and pleasure. First stop was Venice, where I was too busy to paint, but caught some great iPhone snaps (not hard to do basically anywhere in Italy) with my now-antiquated 5s .

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As the calendar turned to May, I traveled with friends to the lush hills of Tuscany, where I had the opportunity to experience the best views the entire region has to offer–from the mountains further inland (overlooking Leonardo’s birthplace Vinci) to the stunning Mediterranean coast–and produced these two plein air studies.

That's me underneath the arch. Photos courtesy of Luca Natalini

That’s me underneath the arch. Photos courtesy of Luca Natalini

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View From Monsummano Alto, oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Lerici Sunset, oil on panel, 4 x 6 inches, 2016

Lerici Sunset, oil on panel, 4 x 6 inches, 2016

In between travels I managed to squeeze in a plein air session while home in Austin, on the occasion of a few artist friends being in town. We made the short drive out to one of the city’s little natural treasures, McKinney Falls State Park, which boasts some active waterfalls and a variety of interesting rock formations with a kind of outer space vibe.

Lower McKinney Falls, oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Lower McKinney Falls, oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Part III: June

In June I ventured to the altitudes of Lake Tahoe for the first time, and got roasted by the deceptively strong summer sun while painting the beautiful vistas of Heavenly Mountain and Emerald Bay.

Western View From Heavenly, oil on panel, 4 x 6 inches, 2016

Western View From Heavenly, oil on panel, 4 x 6 inches, 2016

Emerald Bay, oil on panel, 11 x 5 inches, 2016

Emerald Bay, oil on panel, 11 x 5 inches, 2016

On the eve of my departure I caught an ultra-quick sunset session as the haze from California wildfires filtered out some magical orange and pink rays. Since I only had time to block in a quick impression of the scene, I revisited the piece after I returned home in order to smooth everything out and push the atmosphere.

Lake Tahoe Sunset, oil on panel, 11 x 5 inches, 2016

Lake Tahoe Sunset, oil on panel, 11 x 5 inches, 2016

Part IV: July

In July I visited Ireland for the second time, but first as a plein air painter, and was excited about the opportunities for new environs. The Emerald Isle did not disappoint as I found my way into the mountains south of Dublin for a quick session, then to the picturesque Howth coastline just north of the city, which had me most nostalgic for my boyhood summers on Cape Cod here in the States.

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Keeping my painting out of the rain.

Mountain Stream With View, oil on panel, 11 x 4 inches, 2016

Mountain Stream With View, oil on panel, 11 x 4 inches, 2016

One of the only moments of the day without any tourists in the shot.

One of the only moments of the day without any tourists in the shot.

Baily Lighthouse at Howth Head, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Baily Lighthouse at Howth Head, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

IGOR at 1261

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I just shipped out my painting “Dying In America” to Gallery 1261 in Denver, for the 11th annual International Guild of Realism juried exhibition, mentioned in my last blog post. My painting is for sale and available through the gallery for the duration of the exhibit, so please contact them with inquiries.

I had a chance to check out the online preview of the entire show and WOW, it’s full of nothing but mesmerizing realism in representational art. It is a stunning representation of classical painting and drawing technique, that as you will see here, is still very much alive and well today. I am honored and humbled to be included.

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I won’t be able to attend the opening reception or see the show in person but if you’re in that area of the country, do yourself a favor and have a look. Digital and printed reproductions of this genre of art, and especially the oil painting medium in particular, do absolutely zero justice to the live experience of the paint’s luminosity and depth.

"Dying In America," 2015, oil on linen panel.

“Dying In America,” 5 x 14 inches, 2015, oil on linen panel.   Also, check out my recent technique blog post about this painting.

 

 

Summer Exhibitions

This has turned into quite a busy summer for me, as I have various recent paintings scattered across the globe in several current group exhibitions. Even though it’s been a whirlwind of packing, shipping, emailing, posting, and filekeeping (custom-made art inventory Excel spreadsheet FTW!), I’m honored to have my work included in these shows. Check out the list below and see if any are near you!

 

I have one recent still life included in the juried biennial of the Peto Museum in New Jersey (see recent blog post for more info).

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“To The Nadir”, oil on linen panel, 11 x 14 inches, 2016

I’m showing 4 recent paintings in Austin, Texas gallery Art For The People‘s “Off The Wall, Off The Flesh” exhibit.

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"Hand Of God"

“Hand Of God”, oil on panel, 24 x 24 inches, 2012

I have 4 recent still lifes in Rome, Italy at the MACRO museum’s “Tattoo Forever” exhibit, featuring the fine artworks of noteworthy tattooers from around the world.

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"July", oil on linen panel, 12 x 9 inches, 2015

“July”, oil on linen panel, 12 x 9 inches, 2015

 

I have a recent painting from my Apostasy series exhibiting in “Flesh to Canvas” hosted by Last Rites Gallery at the Empire State Tattoo Expo, a yearly group show featuring non-tattoo fine artworks by many of the top tattooers in the world.

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“The Offering,” oil on linen panel, 11 x 14 inches, 2015.

After it returns from AFTP’s current exhibit, my recent still life is slated for inclusion in the 11th Annual International Juried Exhibition of the International Guild Of Realism, which will happen at Gallery 1261 in Denver Colorado in late August.

"Dying In America," 2015, oil on linen panel.

“Dying In America,” oil on linen panel, 5 x 14 inches, 2015

Anatomical Study from Cadavers

One major artistic discipline for which I have the least formal study is anatomy. I find the human figure and its underlying structures infinitely challenging in all of the complex shapes, sizes and movements they’re capable of. I’ve logged many hours of figure drawing practice from live models as well as a few painting sessions but never have had the opportunity for long term, in-depth study, starting from the inside out. Which is why I jump at the chance for any opportunity to briefly work on this artistic area, and recently was given a rare and unique invitation to observe and paint a cadaver dissection at a local training facility for medical school and EMS students.

Knowing about the rich artistic tradition of anatomical study from cadavers, which began in earnest during the Renaissance in Europe, I was thrilled to uphold and carry forward this practice as a contemporary artist. In recent times the tradition has mostly faded, and I relish the privilege I was given for a day to revive it and link my artistic practice to that of the old masters and forefathers of modern Western art, like Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Titian, among others.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Studies of the Shoulder and Neck, c. 1509-1510

Leonardo Da Vinci, Studies of the Shoulder and Neck, c. 1509-1510

Which isn’t to say that I regard myself to be in their rarified company in any way whatsoever, especially artistically. My accomplishments and artwork are quite meager in comparison with their mastery and all they left us with. What I mean is that, they started and passed on a beautiful tradition of deep artistic study melded with science–a tradition that I, in some small way, have been able to carry on, by practicing in a similar manner.

This day of training, although completely fascinating and enthralling, was not easy. We were set up in an examination room kept around the temperature of a refrigerator, due to, of course, the presence of a draped cadaver in the center of the room. Needless to say, these temperatures are difficult to be in for long periods of time without a lot of physical activity to keep one’s blood flowing and core temperature at a comfortable level. So after a while, painting with cold stiff fingers and shivering chest became the biggest challenge…and amusingly, allowed me to relate in a strange way to the severed and dissected arm of the cadaver perched on a crumpled medical drape in front of me, cold and stiff in its own way.

After observing the technician peel back the layers of skin and fascia on the forearm, all the while listening intently to his explanations of the detailed anatomy and its functioning, my friend James and I then watched in amazement as the arm was severed at the shoulder joint (quite easily) from its cadaver, and placed before us for further study. I gloved up and made a pleasing arrangement with it, and then got to work for a short hour and a half oil sketching session. Here’s the final result of an amazing day of learning and painting:

Study of an Arm, oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches, 2016

Study of an Arm, oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches, 2016

2016 Peto Biennial

I’m very honored and excited to have been among the artists whose work was selected for the John F. Peto Studio Museum’s 2016 Biennial. This marks my second time being included in the show, which is a juried exhibition with cash awards at stake.

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The piece selected this time around was my recent still life “To The Nadir,” which is first in a series of new work tentatively titled “Blood Rituals.”

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To The Nadir, oil on linen panel, 11 x 14 inches, 2016

I’ll be debuting this new body of work (which I feel is some of my best yet!) later this year. More details to follow on that exhibition, and hopefully some writing about the themes and symbolism of the series, so stay tuned!

For now, if you’re in the New Jersey area and into classical still life painting, don’t miss what will surely be an amazing show full of mesmerizing technical mastery.

On The Road 11: New England Plein Air

At the beginning of this month I travelled back to my homeland of Connecticut, hoping for late winter weather mild enough to endure some outdoor painting of the classic New England scenery I grew up with and now become nostalgic for after these last 7 years in the ecology of central Texas. I wasn’t disappointed, as Mother Nature provided a few days of sunshine with the slightest hint of spring.

Colder than it looks, trust me.

Colder than it looks, trust me.

My first opportunity was a very brief session in the late afternoon golden hour at Killam’s Point in Branford, where it was not just barely (baarrrely) warm enough to endure a stretch of time standing still with finger joints stiffening by the hour and legendary March breezes dropping the wind chill as the sun sank into the water of western Long Island Sound. The lapping of the waves into stony sand and the smell of seaweed washed ashore were both adequately satiating to my coastal longings despite the useless frozen digits and deep chill creeping into my core that didn’t fully thaw until much later that night. While far from my finest work, I appreciate the challenges overcome in order to paint something even this rough.

"Killam's Point Sunset", oil on panel, 6.5 x 5 inches, 2016

Killam’s Point Sunset, oil on panel, 6.5 x 5 inches, 2016

The following day was mercifully a bit warmer, especially being away from the coast, in the forest interior of Meriden’s Hubbard Park where I happened upon a softly babbling stream early enough into a failed quest to reach the summit of the small mountain that the park envelops. Up on that mountain, at the edge of a cliff, stands tiny Castle Craig, which overlooks the park and the rest of New Haven County to the south (and which I have never been to, despite growing up practically in its shadow in nearby Cheshire), and I hoped to reach it easily in order to paint the scenic vista of my homeland. But the limited daylight hours and weight of my painting gear upon my surgically repaired lower lumbar were enough to keep me resigned to the forest below, where I was thankful to find a secluded and easily accessible place to paint a forest interior that I’m quite pleased with. Juxtaposing the smoothly blended flowing water with the rougher chunks of loose alla-prima paint technique has become one of my favorite effects to attempt in my young plein air painting practice.

Hubbard Park easel

Late Winter Stream At Hubbard Park, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Late Winter Stream At Hubbard Park, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Notes & Advice 11

The popular text message shorthand TMI, as most of us growing up in the cell phone era know, means “too much information.” Normally not a good thing–except when it comes to my realism oil painting strategy.

To be specific, I find it useful to paint as much information as possible in the beginning stages and opaque layers of my photorealist paintings, so that I can pick and choose where to obscure it during the final (semi-transparent) glazing layers. There’s perhaps a bit of inefficiency involved in this approach, but it allows for a more organic development process overall, and a greater degree of control during the final artistic choices of what to emphasize or subordinate into shadow.

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“Dying In America” (detail). Before and after the final shadow glazes. Note the subtle loss of detail/information in the rose petals.

The human eye is capable of seeing every detail of any given view, but the brain, our computer processor of sorts, is wired for efficiency and baseline survival, and as such is instinctively tuned to only allow us to focus on what is most important in any given view. Details and countless bits and pieces of any scene get stitched together from memory, assumption, and expectation, while a vast majority of the remaining minutiae are simply discarded as inessential to whatever task is at hand.

Some of my favorite realism artists were masters of this concept, knowing exactly what to emphasize or subdue in order to pull the viewers attention towards their focus and tug at their heartstrings with an effective narrative or use of symbolism.

Notice in John Singer Sargent’s portraits how little attention was paid to large areas of dress, allowing inessential areas to become black or brown silhouettes with no detail. He created a hierarchy of importance within the picture that mimics the way our brains naturally function, using the aforementioned technique to subordinate certain areas.

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John Singer Sargent. “Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau),” 1884, oil. The dress and background, which comprise nearly all of the painting, are almost entirely flat areas of dark value.

Andrew Wyath used the technique of reserve just as brilliantly towards the goal of depicting scenic vistas and landscapes with a completely lifelike–yet surprisingly graphic and simplistic–appearance, setting the often somber and peaceful mood with just enough detail to draw us in and keep us looking.

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Andrew Wyeth. “Sea Boots,” 1976, tempera. Details in the boots and foreground tempered with the geometric simplicity of everything in the top half of the composition.

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Andrew Wyeth. “Barracoon,” 1976, tempera. Just enough accurate rendering in the figure and folds in the fabric, juxtaposed with large open fields of color and diffused texture.

 

And so I too try to keep the artistic concepts of hierarchy, subordination, and reserve in mind while envisioning my final result, with the goal of creating a visually appealing image, rather than chaotic overload containing a factually truthful amount of information, yet lacking cohesion and harmony.

I think these concepts become especially important when painting anything approaching the photorealism genre. Micro details are common and often necessary to complete the desired illusion in this style of painting, and yet conversely, a closed-minded and strict devotion to every detail of one’s photo reference or still life arrangement can result in a less aesthetically pleasing work of art.

"Dying In America" (detail).

“Dying In America” (detail).

Visual information, as with most things in life, can in fact become too much of a good thing. To make sure I hit my desired sweet spot on the information spectrum, I’m not afraid to paint more detail than will ultimately be needed, only to lose it in deep, rich, believable shadows. The most effective of these shadows will still contain the faintest traces of the details underneath, yet not so much detail as to clutter and distract from my desired focal point.

"Dying In America," 2015, oil on linen panel.

“Dying In America,” 2015, oil on linen panel.

Miniature Landscapes

This past month I unearthed a bunch of tiny frames from my studio storage for the purpose of painting little gifts for friends and family this holiday season. I’d been collecting these things at various vintage stores and yard sales for the past several years for just such an occasion. Looking to tap into the peace and simplicity of painting outdoors during this colder (mostly) indoors season, I decided to attempt some miniature landscapes for these frames.

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Various miniatures, oil on canvas paper, 2015

For the first time since embarking on my landscape painting journey about a year ago, I worked from photos rather than “en plein air.” Although unable to immerse myself in the atmosphere and unique light properties of the setting, I found the photos an incredibly effective practice modality due to the minimum of mental conversion needed in the controlled studio environment. The unchanging two-dimensional photo and the optimal lighting conditions were a great way to narrow down the variables in the artistic equation, freeing up my memory to attempt to rekindle some of the original vibe of these landscape locations, as well as focus on fundamentals like color matching and painting technique. I imagine this being somewhat similar to what the Hudson River School masters experienced in their studios, working strictly from memory and their plein air field studies.

 

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Miraflores Beach at Night, oil on linen panel, 4 x 6 inches, 2015

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Full Moon Sunset Over East Austin, oil on linen panel, 4 x 6 inches (oval), 2015

Each of these tiny paintings were completed with the alla-prima technique over the course of a single 2-3 hour session, including the lone non-landscape study of the inside of an apheresis blood cassette (random, I know…more on this in the coming months, hopefully…), which was a gift for my phlebotomist friend.

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Soul

The inspiration for this painting came largely from oysters and their far more notorious contents: pearls.

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The pearl has been a symbol of magic and purity throughout antiquity and across many varied cultures, from Western religions like Christianity to Eastern spiritual traditions such as Buddhism.

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Soul thumbnail sketch, ink on paper.

In this painting a pearlescent lump of vibrant, growing flesh represents the human “soul,” or the mysterious essence of life that animates the decaying physical body, and for which modern science still has no complete understanding or explanation. Quite ironically, the only representation of this lifeforce that we mortals seem able to discern with any reliability is its supposed opposite: the physical embodiment.

Here, its life-giving energy is co-opted by the encasement of confining machinery, which can be seen as representing the limited human form, and in a broader sense, the inescapable yet corroded impositions of society and culture.

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Soul, 11 x 14 inches, oil on mounted linen panel, 2015

The contrast between the hard and soft elements of this picture illustrates the human struggle to find meaning and fulfillment in the precarious balancing of vulnerability and armament. The title Soul references the mystery of what it is that makes our atoms vibrate with life, and our consciousness self-aware.

Notes & Advice 10

Written by N.C. Wyeth in a letter to his son Andrew:

The great men forever radiate a sharp sense of that profound requirement of an artist, to fully understand that consequences of what he creates are unimportant. Let the motive for action be in the action itself and not in the event. I know from my own experience that when I create with any degree of strength and beauty I have no thought of consequences. Anyone who creates for effect—to score a hit—does not know what he is missing!

In other words, paint what you love to paint, what feels true to you, what your passion leads you to create…regardless of how commercially successful it may or may not be, or what current trends or critics endorse as currently fashionable. Let go of worry over results and simply show up to do the work! Important words for any artist questioning their output or their vision (as we all should).

Pariah

"Pariah", oil on panel, 2013, 12 x 24 inches

“Pariah”, oil on panel, 2013, 12 x 24 inches

My painting “Pariah” was an experiment in contrasts between the extremes of shocking subject matter and uplifting emotions, between surface appearance and underlying symbolism. It evolved out of an intriguing and unusual backstory, and I think anyone wishing to understand the painting on a deeper level than the initial shock value that its grotesque subject might offer could benefit from knowing the story. As an artist, I like to learn everything I can about a piece of art that interests me, in order to deepen my understanding of and appreciation for it. But if you like to interpret art completely from your own imagination, without the influence of explanations, this essay will definitely be a spoiler.

I completed this painting in late 2013 after forming its concept over the previous year of working on my Apostasy series. For that original group of 10 paintings my primary source material and visual reference was a batch of surgery photos “smuggled” to me by a nurse friend who happened to assist on a highly publicized procedure performed by a world-renowned pediatric surgeon in Los Angeles.

The surgery in question was the removal of a parasitic twin body–a set of legs and arms with a partial torso of their own but no head or brain–from a young Asian boy. This risky procedure also happened to be the subject of a documentary produced by The Learning Channel about rare cases of conjoined twins. As my friend explained to me afterwards, “there were cameras everywhere,” and so many unnecessary people in the operating room that it felt like a party, not a surgery. So, she figured, as long as I didn’t depict any precise likenesses while altering and cropping the source photos to fit my artistic needs, it should be okay for me to use them.

Little did I know, the day I first saw those photos sometime in 2011 would start a still unfolding artistic evolution, in which “Pariah” is but one chapter. I’d seen plenty of photos like those before, had often used visceral flesh and blood imagery in my work, being strangely attracted to the aesthetic of their glossy surfaces, warm colors and the soft organic patterns of flesh and body tissue. But never had I as close an encounter with the source of the imagery, nor had I seen photos of anything quite like the incredibly unique and rare procedure of separating two tiny conjoined bodies.

I stashed those photos for many months, looking at them occasionally while ruminating on the themes of life and loss, health and sickness, fragility and brutality that they suggested. It wasn’t until some health struggles of my own necessitated some frustrating forays into the modern medical system that the ideas crystalized and motivation appeared, and with a solo show at Last Rites Gallery in Manhattan approaching in the spring of 2012, I got to work.

Many of the surgery photos had an ambiguous quality that made them appear quite like mysterious snapshots of a strange and very serious, even frightening, ritual. I focused on these shots while culling down the imagery for my solo show, but never forgot one photo that was very unlike the others. Its stark brutality set it apart from those and made it too obvious for the intended ambiguity of the series, but its disorientingly grotesque beauty still haunted me, whispering a vague inspiration into my subconscious.

In this photograph, the disposed bodily artifacts from the surgery were arranged neatly like ornaments on a cloth-lined tray for scientific appreciation, in the precise locations they would have inhabited had they been the constituents of a fully formed little boy’s body. Oddly distorted in shape and size by the parasitism, the tiny limbs–two legs, two arms, a chunk of torso with bulbous intestines splayed out–looked tragically angelic, heavy with dead weight yet still full of lively color and capillary blush.

That loving commemoration of a dismemberment spoke to me more as time went on. It seemed a succinct representation of what a technological society does to its citizens, all of us in some way or another, starting at birth and continuing well into adulthood. One by one, or all at once, our wild traits, impulses, and inconvenient feelings are intercepted, punished, shunned, contextualized, repressed and denied, severed and forced into an individual and collective shadow psyche. Whether done with good intentions or bad, for better or worse, the disassembling is the same. This living dissection is the process of enculturation and assimilation: the purpose of civilization.

The inescapable cultural phenomenon filters down into individual lives, in turn influencing what we do to each other in personal relationships. Friends, family, lovers alike are each cut up into traits, moods, and moments. We categorize these desirable and undesirable, rewarding the former in order to encourage more of them, punishing the latter in order to banish them from our experience. We do unto others as it’s being done to us; part instinct and part conditioning. We end up severed, ashamed of some parts of ourselves while clinging to others. And so most of us grow up with fragmented psyches craving wholeness, wanting instinctively to be put back together again in the compassionate embrace of person and deity alike.

How fitting, then, to use that image for a painting honoring the pariahs in our world, and in ourselves. I wanted to create a visual wish that those who’ve been eclipsed could wear that crescent ring of light as a halo. That the broken could be seen as beautiful in their imperfection. That the cast out, the unloved and unwanted, could all have their day of acceptance.

"Pariah" (detail)

“Pariah” (detail)

I like to paint what many people would deem ugly and shocking things because I believe the grotesque needs to be fully accepted, and even seen as beautiful, in order for inward and outward progression to occur. I believe that each and every aspect of reality has its own intrinsic value while also being a necessary part of a complete whole.

Although not obvious to anyone seeing the work, in “Pariah” I enjoy the contradiction between its subject matter and the feeling I had while painting it. In other words, the unity of dark and light that resulted from painting a child’s severed body parts while meditating on compassion and love. Like the unification of all dichotomies, I believe the intersection of brutality and empathy is a fruitful place. I wanted this painting to be my document of that, and, once the backstory is understood, a map of sorts for getting there.

On The Road 10: Peruvian Plein Air

Earlier this month I traveled to Peru, where I trekked to majestic Machu Picchu for the first time, documenting the epic Andes landscape throughout the journey with some plein air studies.

Being new to plein air painting, I took a few months before the trip to dial in my portable painting setup, experimenting with different materials and products in order to arrive at something as travel-friendly as possible.

 

Thumbnail sketching with my South American friends on Machu Picchu.

Thumbnail sketching with my South American friends on Machu Picchu.

 

Not only did everything need to clear foreign and domestic customs, the intense hiking aspect of the forthcoming journey required it to be as small, lightweight, and efficient as possible. After getting the initial inspiration from my summer workshop teacher Thomas Kegler‘s novel and ingenious modifications to the traditional plein air pochade box, I searched the internet and local stores for a few more ideas and products. In the end I devised something very functional, fairly efficient, not terribly expensive (as far as high-end art and travel equipment goes), acceptably small, and certainly lightweight.

NOTEWORTHY GEAR

  1. Tripod: The most important part of a plein air easel is the tripod, and to get one that is (1) reliable, (2) sturdy, (3) small, and (4) lightweight, you have to spend some money. It’s not worth the headaches later on, out in the field, to mess around with the cheap stuff. So I read reviews online and settled on the Manfrotto Befree, which seemed to intersect all of the 4 criteria above at an optimal place. After buying the tripod, I modified it by drilling a hole through the center stem a few milimeters from the bottom, in order to be able to hang a weight (my backpack) from it while working outdoors, which is crucial for keeping the very lightweight tripod sturdy in any kind of wind. So far it’s working out great, I just wish it went just a few inches higher like their studio tripods do, but, you can’t have it all when you’re concerned about size and packing space. (Grade: A).
  2. Pochade Box: Ethically, I strongly dislike Walmart, but when it’s the only large store in your small Texas town, sometimes you go there for the one random thing you want that they have (and comfort yourself afterwards by remembering that the entire world is headed for doomsday anyway because of capitalist greed causing global warming, and your minuscule nonsupport of Walmart wouldn’t do shit to stop that, really). In this case, it was the unlikely and unexpected score of a lightweight, plastic, 3-part folding notebook holder thing (with perfectly placed interior velcro elastic straps?!). For around $10.00, and requiring only a few small tripod-mounting holes to be drilled into it, this was an absolute bargain. …and wait, that’s not all!! It’s perfectly sized to fit two 9 x 12 inch panels in such a way that it doubles as your take-home wet painting carrier when you’re done with your session!! Call now, and this product can be yours for only 4 easy payments of literally $2.99!! Seriously though, I’m so pumped about this thing that I want to make an infomercial about it to spread the word. (Grade: A)
  3. Paint Carrier: Just a small bait holder from the hunting and fishing section at…Walmart. Or probably most hardware stores. It worked well enough, but I’m still on the hunt for one of equally small size, but with an airtight seal and divided into cubes instead of just rows. The paint mixed together somewhat during transport and higher temperatures, and began to dry out as well due to airflow (a rag soaked with moisture-enhancing Clove oil placed into the container drastically delayed drying time, though). Customs/TSA ProTip: If asked to explain what your oil paint is, never say they are paint! Always refer to them as “artist colors”! “Paint” tends to get lumped in with the general category of industrial, toxic materials banned for civilian flight, and they try to take those away from you, or at least tend to give you a hard time about it. Flying with as few “artist colors” as possible, and always packing them deep in your checked baggage rather than carry-ons, will also minimize hassles. (Grade: C+)
  4. Umbrella: At first these seem frilly and wasteful but after a few nasty plein air session sunburns, you realize how crucial they are when you’re standing still in any kind of direct sunlight for any length of time. I’ve been happy so far with my very first umbrella purchase, the Multi Mount Collapsible Umbrella from Guerilla Painter. It packs very small, and doesn’t weigh much. I wish the fabric wasn’t black though, because that can make your workspace very dark. And I also wish the mounting clamp had more angle options but that might be wishful thinking given its price range, size and weight. (Grade: A-)
  5. Crucial Miscellaneous Supplies: (1) Cheap zippered cloth bags from Walmart for carrying whatever. (2) Tiny bungee cords from the local hardware store. I use the Cords to keep my pochade box setup sturdy and still–just hook them anywhere, to anything, for some instant tension. These things have been really handy, and surprisingly one of the most indispensable things I bought for the setup. (3) Large industrial rubber bands, also surprisingly useful, in this case for making sure the pochade box doesn’t come unlatched unexpectedly and spring open, and ditto for the paint carrier. (4) Tiny glass vial for carrying solvent. Juuust big enough to hold enough solvent to dip your brush into and sort of clean them after you’re done, until you can give them a thorough cleaning at home. Carrying solvent around really sucks, it’s the worst part of plein air oil painting for me. It’s a health and safety hazard, of course, and not healthy for the environment that you’re trying so hard to appreciate. So, “as little as possible” has been my goal ever since beginning oil painting, and certainly since starting my plein air journey. Customs/TSA ProTip: Because I am a bad person, I have forgotten about and accidentally flown with this single tiny vial containing a mere several drops of solvent, buried deep in my checked baggage, a few times before. Obviously doing this isn’t advisable, and obviously I procure solvent at my destination whenever feasible, and properly dispose of it there as well. So my tip is to scout out in advance where you can get mineral spirits at your destination, and always keep it to an absolute minimum quantity. While on the go, wrap the jar or vial thoroughly with plastic and then double-bag it with ziplocs or anything else you can think of. (Grade: A-)
  6. Backpack: I’ve been so happy with my Osprey Comet 30L over the past few years of heavy, rugged use. It’s comfortable, durable, has enough pockets and compartments for everything I tend to carry, and is also Camelbak compatible, which came in handy during this trip, because carrying separate water containers is a drag. I was able to stuff my 2.0 liter reservoir into my backpack along with every single other supply needed, including energy bars, and the whole pack wasn’t unbearably heavy. It was certainly doable over short periods for someone of average to slightly above average fitness range (and not to mention at an elevation of, in this case, 6000-10,000 feet).

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So as for my portable painting setup criteria mentioned earlier, here’s how I rate my current setup overall:

  1. Functionality: A
  2. Efficiency: B+
  3. Cost: A-
  4. Size: A-
  5. Weight A-

Being new to the plein air community, I’m sure there’s further improvements to the system I can make and of course, much more experience and knowledge to be gained, but this recent journey was successful enough that I wanted to share and add to the body of helpful knowledge out there.

As for the experience and the work itself, here are some photos.

Three location shots:

Cusco, Peru

First stop in Cusco, Peru: 2 hour sunset study.

Ollantaytambo, Peru

Second stop in Ollantaytambo, Peru: 2 hour sunset study.

Third stop, Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes, Peru.

Third stop, Machu Picchu, Peru: 4 hour study.

 

Three finished studies, 9 x 12 inches each, oil on panel:

"Above Cusco"

“Above Cusco”

"Ollantaytambo Sunset"

“Ollantaytambo Sunset”

"Huayna Picchu"

“Huayna Picchu”

And some iPhone 5s photography shot throughout the trip, for good measure:

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