February 23, 2015
I’m now about 4 months into my Mexico experience, and I can finally say the studio is firing on all cylinders. And so am I.
I went back to Nebraska at Christmas not only to spend the holidays with family but also to pick up some much-needed artists’ supplies. I mentioned in an earlier entry that Mexico does not seem to have something I consider essential to acrylic painting, disposable palettes. Well, they have them but the ones I’ve found here are like tissue paper and basically useless. So I brought back some good disposable palette pads in my suitcase. I also brought some other necessities, like my portable Bose speakers so I can have music playing while I paint—another essential. I also brought more blank canvas and some other things I needed.
Now my studio, while not as great as my Lincoln studio, is fully functional. I could use more space and I’d kill for a rolling metal cart like the one I have in Nebraska, but the bottom line is, I can paint, and I am painting.
When I use a title like PAINTING FAILS, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek; I don’t really consider any painting a a failure. I’m always learning and I think I learn more from the so-called failures. Plus there’s such a thing as warm-up exercises, and that’s another good way to look at a painting that didn’t turn out the way I thought I wanted it to. There were several of these on the way to getting rolling in my new studio.
In case you’re wondering what happens to a ‘failed’ painting: I gesso over it and then it’s ready for another painting to go on top of it. I have some canvases three or four paintings thick. I’ve explained in previous blog entries that if you’re pushing yourself and growing as a painter, you’re going to have a lot of ‘failures.’ But I think it bears repeating. A lot of people, especially those who’ve never painted, think that a ‘successful’ artist like myself steps into the studio and starts painting and everything he touches is great. IT’S NOT TRUE. I have long stretches, sometimes many weeks, where nothing turns out. Then there are other periods where almost everything seems to flow and every painting turns out well. These ups and downs are part of an artist’s life, and the only exceptions I know of are formula painters who basically paint the same thing over and over again—and that’s not me.
Fortunately I’ve been doing this long enough to not take it too seriously when nothing seems to work. I just keep painting.
The first painting that worked after I got back to Mexico after Christmas was a nude of Vinicius. I played it safe with this one, and that was what I needed to do. I needed a little confidence builder, so I chose an image I knew I could pull off without too much stretching. Dramatic lighting and a simple composition make things a lot easier. I was able to do this one in a few hours, and while it’s not great, it’s a nice little painting and it made me feel more ready to tackle whatever came next.
The second successful painting I did in January was an abstract. This was an abstract grid painting, of a type I’ve done a lot over the years, but in keeping with my direction over the past couple of years, I painted it very loosely, with lots of broad strokes and drips. This one came together pretty easily and I had a good time painting it. I call it Modern Times.
The next painting I tried was a face. Again, something I’ve done many times before. I kept this one pretty straightforward, too, although I did experiment a bit with color. I kept the whole painting very muted, using only greys for most of it. The touches of red and orange you see in this one are actually very muted as well, but next to the greys they really pop out. Again, not a huge challenge, but a good effort, and one I like. I titled it “Limbo.”
My next painting was another nude, and this time I did push myself. The style I’ve been developing recently is very loose and gestural, with lots of drips. This is something I admired in other artists’ work for years but was never quite able to get to myself. Until recently. The big breakthrough for me happened last summer (see my entry called “Painting Blind” for more details).
The “Painting Blind” approach is simple—close your eyes and attack the canvas without seeing where your paint is going—but it’s really difficult. It’s a bit like walking a tightrope with your eyes closed. Scary! Getting myself into the frame of mind this kind of painting requires is the real challenge. The thing that works the most consistently for me is to find inspiring works by other painters and look at them intensely, letting the energy kind of soak into me. Then I get up, pick up my brush and load it with paint, and with eyes closed, let ‘er rip!
The other important part is to keep the paint really sloppy and wet so there’s lots of dripping. It may seem like a superficial effect, and maybe it is, but it helps keep me in the space where I need to be: committed to the painting but willing to keep it messy and imperfect.
This was the approach I set for myself for this nude. I chose a photograph of Steve Chen from our Malibu photo shoot. Even with all the warming up I’d done over the previous weeks of painting, I was still a bit nervous about this one. But as it turned out, it went fine. I was able to stay loose and keep the painting messy and I was very pleased with the result.
Since I moved to Mexico a particular type of painting keeps popping into my head. This place is bringing out my love of vivid colors and heavy outlines, and I’ve been wanting to try something like that in my paintings, but wasn’t sure what subject matter I wanted to use.
When I bought my Waikiki apartment back in 2008, I immediately started buying potted plants and soon the place was a jungle. For some reason owning my own place made me want to fill it with plants! When I left Hawaii in 2012, I had to get rid of all my plants. I hated that. Living in Nebraska, I just didn’t feel the urge—I knew I wasn’t going to be there that long. But now, living in Mexico and having my own place again, I find I’m once again starting to fill my space with plants.
So, given my love of plants. my fascination with plantforms, and the fact that I have several great live-in models, I decided painting some plants might be a good way to explore this vivid colors-heavy outlines thing that was forming in my mind.
I did quite a few warmups, and that helped. Then I decided to do a plant photo shoot. I have several pothos plants and I shot about 100 photos of one of these plants from lots of different angles, mostly pretty close-up. Then I started drawing from some of those photographs.
This turned out to be fun, and some of my sketches were getting interesting. I was enjoying the simple shapes and their complicated relationships. I didn’t yet know how it would translate into paint.
I used everything I’ve learned over the past couple of years in the first painting I did of my pothos plant. By that I mean that once I had put the basic shapes onto the canvas, I attacked and painted blind and wet. Lots of can’t-see-what-I’m-doing brushstrokes, which meant lots of energy and interesting textures, and lots of drips. Of course in between the blind painting, I’m standing back and deciding what area needs what colors, where it needs to be darker, where lighter, etc. It’s a dance between conscious control on the one hand, and blind passion and physical motion on the other.
The result can be magic, and Pothos 1 definitely has some of that. I was very pleased with how it turned out. I’m beginning to feel like I can consistently do this messy, drippy energetic style, and that makes me happy because I love what happens when I get this approach to work.
I decided to do a series of three pothos paintings. For #2, I kept the process as much like the first one as possible. This one was a little trickier, but it still worked out well.
The final painting was the hardest, probably because I was starting to lose interest. I don’t usually do a series of several paintings focused on a single subject or theme because I am easily bored. Yeah, I’m sure there’s some ADD going on there. So it was a good challenge for me to see if I could stay focused long enough to do 3 paintings in the same vein. Plus I had in mind blue, yellow and red backgrounds for the 3 paintings, and I wanted to see what they looked like together.
I did stick with it, and I did finish the final one. I learned something, too. I can stay focused long enough to do something if I have a clear enough picture of the goal.
(By the way, each of these paintings is approximately 24″x32″, or 60x81cm.)
I’m pretty excited about two things. One, I find I am able to consistently get myself into that brave, willing-to-risk-it-all space that my current painting approach requires. Two, I’m really happy to see myself getting more disciplined and focused with my painting.
Oh, one other thing I’m really happy about: I LOVE living in Puerto Vallarta!!
P.S. If you’re reading this blog before March 25, 2015, these paintings are not yet available for purchase and shipping, since they are here with me in Mexico. I’ll be taking them back to the U.S. March 25 and then they’ll go up on the website and become available for sale. If you’d like to reserve any of them, that’s possible; just e-mail me and I can let you know about availability.
Visit the Douglas Simonson website here.