For the past 15 years, I’ve painted opulent European 18th and 19th century interiors. Designed as theatrical displays of status and power by wealthy aristocrats and bourgeoisie, these formerly private sites are now museums, providing entertainment and pleasure for touristic consumption, while also opening up a space for philosophical contemplation.
Although I use photography as a structural device through which I enter the painting process, with each piece I always seem to arrive at a point of crisis where I need to break free from the tyranny of the image. Through partly destroying the image I discover fresh solutions to painterly problems I set for myself.
Throughout my childhood and into my mid-twenties, I was a ballet dancer. That intense training of spatial awareness and interpretive questioning is still deeply stamped in my DNA. A painting to me is a kind of choreography; there’s a haptic dance that takes place from my optical experience of an image, through to the way my nervous system signals to my body how to translate and record it. As painter/dancer I tease out meaning through working and reworking, coming up to speed as I gain understanding, and making the last strikes with absolute commitment.
Below are images of a work shown in progress through to completion, of the Porcelain Dining Room in the Chateau de Versailles. It’s a commission I’ve enjoyed making for a private home near Toronto. The wide panoramic format was pieced together from individual photographs I took from a trip in France a number of years ago. I remember going through the chateau twice, the second pass offered a satisfying, golden afternoon light. The composition reminds me of the forced perspective one observes on the virtual tours of museum websites.
Blocking in always begins with big brushes, to locate everything and establish colour family and main values. The next step in the painting is to use smaller brushes and go in for specifics of detail, sharpening edges and creating stronger focal points. I want the viewer to feel immersed in the space, with lots to encourage the eye to keep meandering, discovering new subtleties and maybe even surprises. It’s important to me that a painting unfold for the viewer slowly, to withstand the test of time.
In the final session something happened that wasn’t planned. Here’s the finished piece with its new title, Mantlepiece with Talking Objects (Versailles).
Working with the warm colors of the parquet flooring, gilding, and marble, really helped energize the gray days of winter.
In my September 2012 post on my “In the Studio” page, I bemoaned my boredom with photography as a source for my paintings. Well since then things have changed quite a bit. While photography has limitations, I am once again finding it very freeing, in different ways from working from life. The paintings that “just happen” very quickly are ones that I sometimes prize; but there are also the larger works that emerge slowly, and are an accumulation of “hits” and “misses” that are moves toward the final goal of an image that registers for me something that I hope to call Painting.
The layering of glazes can subtly alter the surface and create nuances of painterly depth that a “premier coup” painting might not. Each approach is just different, neither better nor worse than the other.
There’s also what technology can bring to the process–I’m fairly sure if Velaszquez or Vermeer were here today they would most likely be taking advantage of today’s photography post-production software in conjunction with their painting.
Along with working from reproductions of reality printed on paper or found on my computer screen, I also have been really benefiting from some life drawing and painting in the past while. It’s feeling good to do it all–– it just makes the work richer and I think more informed.
Today we needn’t be And/Or but can easily say yes to Both.
Tim Gardner’s painting exhibition on now at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery affirms for me something I have been feeling for some time now. Could it be that a new sincerity, indeed a new romantic movement is afoot?
Gardner’s small watercolor mountain vistas and light-drenched children’s playground reveal a sensitivity that seems to have been undervalued in recent trends. True, his more typical painting of a pal giving the finger to the photographer’s camera while resting at the summit of a hike, and a homeless man picking up trash, adds edge to the exhibition, but then the glow from birthday candles on his mother’s face bring one back to a warmth and empathy for his subjects.
With the new pragmatic “get things done” spirit in Washington, and the economic downturn forcing us all to look at what is truly important to us, I am wondering if this will encourage an opening up in the artworld to more heartfelt subjects. Perhaps Gardner is onto something.
“Voyages en Zigzag” is the working title to my next show, which will be in November 2009 at the Bau-Xi Gallery in Toronto. This time, instead of working from photographs from my travels, I will stay at home (this is the era of a new restraint, n’est-ce pas?) and collect jpegs from friends and acquaintances in my computer’s Inbox. It’s exciting to see a big download coming through the internet line, a good indication that some new, delicious images from someone’s holidays are about to land.
Just received some nice photos from my pals Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, (shameless name-dropping) who have become quite the jet-setters with animation festivals and such. I also have been fortunate to get permission to use the photos of a quantum physicist who posted his delicious images of Russian palaces on Flickr. I love the notion of a guy who deals in particle theory sending me pixels of objects through the World Wide Web, and then me translating them into paint.