In Black and White

What's Love Got To Do With It

What’s Love Got To Do With It

Love Me Tender

Love Me Tender


I love to paint portraits. It is enormously satisfying to see a face form on a blank canvas, and quite often in the past year or two, twice as good to see two faces. Two faces make a painting about relationships, not likeness. Two faces on a canvas have something to say to one another; it’s my job to depict whatever that is—be it fondness, disdain, caring, annoyance, compassion, friendship, passion or something more.

And I love color. The vast majority of my work has always been in color—bright, vivid, in your face color. But I was inspired to try my hand at images in black and white when I saw a painting that my friend, Michael Wolov, had bought on a trip to Cuba a few years ago…a painting of an old, wrinkled Cuban man, smoking a big cigar. Until he told me otherwise, I had always thought that it was a photograph that Michael had taken himself, the details so perfect, so real. I tucked it away in the back of my mind, until I chose to paint a couple kissing and decided to attempt it in black and white.

I always start my paintings with a grisaille, a monochromatic underpainting, in which I draw the image with my brush and block out all the darks and lift the lights that will define the images. Once that dries, the next step would be to apply color, again starting with the darks, but this time, instead of various tones of flesh, my palette was filled with shades of white, gray and black. In each painting, I found that the lack of color freed me to paint shapes and patterns with increased contrast. Without the distraction of color, I think the images become more compelling, more dramatic, if you will, much like a good black and white photograph. 

I give most of my paintings titles, often a hint at what I mean to convey. The titles usually come to me at some point near the end of the process—some are immediately apparent; others call for opinions from family, friends or fellow painters. One of my first painting teachers, Jack Highberger, happened to teach my painting class last week, when I was finishing the first of my black and white couples. He remarked that the man looked very tender toward the woman, moving me to call it “Love Me Tender.” As I turned to my second pair of lovers, I knew immediately that I would call it “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” Some titles come easy. 

In Praise of Oil Painting

Pipe Dreams

Pipe Dreams

Oils are the most forgiving medium I know. About forty years ago, I started making art out of clay and learned that breakage and misfirings could destroy something that had taken weeks to make. Taking up stone carving twenty years later, I found that a misplaced chisel, when carving a groin, could leave your marble torso an amputee or turn your two entwined lovers into two separate figures, in that case a happy accident. Exploring painting once I learned to draw, I found that watercolor was the most exacting (every mark you make stays on that paper), and acrylics dried too fast for my taste—I need time and a margin of error.

Imagine my joy at discovering oil painting! I start most paintings with a grisaille, an underpainting drawn with thinned paint, the perfect time to make all of my important decisions: placement on the canvas, proportion, lights and darks, etc. Some days it comes easy, but I have been known to wipe out a day’s work, only to come back to my newly blank canvas the next time, because the painting depends on that drawing. Then the paint application begins. There, too, if you get something wrong, you can fix it—color, temperature, background, whatever. Even once you’ve called it done, a detail in a painting can come back to speak to you. I added reflected light from street lamps to my tango dancers in Dancing in the Dark, a few weeks after I had called it finished.

I started my smoke series with Up In Smoke, not intending a series but just enjoying the challenge of painting the background first, in an ombre effect, shading the color from deepest purple to paler violet and then adding the match and the smoke. There’s no underpainting for these—the smoke is painted free hand, with oil paints thinned with linseed oil for the transparency. I liked painting it so much, it led me to do three more, each time choosing a different source for the smoke and a different ombre background. It was only after I had finished Take a Deep Breath that I decided to hang them together, a series of four, but when I looked at them in relation to one another, I realized that the bright turquoise I had used in Pipe Dreams would not work in the group. While the charcoal gray lightens to the color of ashes and makes the pipe recede, it’s all about the smoke, as it should be.