Seven years ago, fascinated with the challenge of being able to paint transparency in oil paint using glazes thinned with linseed oil, I started a series of paintings on 12” x 36” gesso boards with a match that had just been blown out. Painting the stream of smoke wafting up from that match led me to paint a birthday candle, a stick of incense, and a big fat cigar. For the fifth and final panel, I intended to paint a pipe. I googled images of pipes and came across several before I settled on a calabash, the kind of pipe that Sherlock Holmes smoked. Fast forward to last month, when I was going through the photos on my iPad and found the quirky blond smoking that pipe that I had painted for my fifth panel. I’ve been looking at that blond for years and finally thought I’d try to bring her to life. As much as I always enjoy painting portraits—she was a trip! She looks so very 1940’s to me, and with her chin out, pipe in mouth…that’s attitude for you…so Retro is what I’ll call her.
My good friend and former student (Long Beach High School Class of ’67), Jeffrey Felner, posts #wakinguptofashion every day on FaceBook and Instragram, featuring fantastic fashion photographers of the past and today. Last fall, I took a screen shot of one of his postings—a beautiful, young model who was swathed in white tulle from her hat to her toes. I filed it away and came across it last week, when I was looking for something new to paint. The whiteness of her made me think of one of the earliest painting assignments presented to students at the Acorn School of Art: the white study, an exercise that teaches just how much color there is in a painting of white objects. I thought it might be fun to try a portrait in white, having just watched Debra Highberger’s portrait painting lesson on YouTube through acornartschool.com. I got to give myself the challenge of painting a portrait, painting a white study and painting the transparency of tulle…all in one. Having just finished two very large paintings, I decided to change the pace by painting a couple of small canvases. I painted JJ the Beast and A White Study: Portrait alternately, because one canvas could sit out on my patio to dry for a day or two while I painted the other.
My husband is my biggest fan. He loves most of my paintings, even the ones that don’t include pretty women or body parts, but he doesn’t really like my jellyfish. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the skill involved, but the subjects creep him out. He grew up in Brighton Beach, NY, spent his childhood at the beach and apparently had his fill of slimy, stinging jellyfish. That doesn’t stop me from painting the more beautiful and interesting of the species, but it doesn’t make him like those paintings much either. I’ve been fooling around with ways to paint other things that are transparent and in motion, as much to challenge myself as to find something he might enjoy. I decided to experiment with smoke: blowing out candles, lighting matches, watching smoke streams.
When I’m in Boston, it is my habit to come home from a day of painting at the Acorn Gallery, put my current painting on the easel in my studio (which faces out into my front hall) and look at it. I stop on my way out of my kitchen and study it; I stop on my way back to the kitchen and stare at it, often having to remind myself that I came down to make dinner or get a drink. I look at it when I’m bringing the newspaper in, and I see it when I’ve picked up the mail. But that’s just me being a little obsessive about my work—seeing what needs to be changed, what might be enhanced, what should come next. I never really expect anyone else to be quite as mesmerized by something I paint as I am. Until now. There’s something about staring at that smoke stream in Up in Smoke that keeps you hypnotized. I don’t know why it does that, but it makes me want to paint more smoke—a series, perhaps, with the smoke on each canvas coming from different sources. Inspiration sometimes floats in on a puff of smoke…
I am primarily a figurative, representational painter, not an abstract artist. On occasion, however, I have been inspired to express a vision through abstraction, though even then, I tend to describe that abstraction in realistic terms. I painted Airborne as a companion piece to Earthbound. While technically not a diptych, I planned for the two paintings to be hung together. Earthbound is a fairly straightforward abstract landscape, but Airborne took on a life of its own as I painted it. The same transparency that informs my jellyfish paintings seemed to work on the circles that had at first formed a somewhat static pattern but started to gain movement as layers upon layers were applied. Just as the jellyfish seem to move through the water, these bubbles started to rise from the canvas. I just went with it, for once not tied to a model or a photograph but simply inside my own head.
A fan recently commissioned me to paint Airborne again. As with many commissions, some changes had to be made—the canvas had to be 30” X 40” instead of 48” X 30,” which made the image vertical instead of horizontal; the colors included greens and whites, not aquas and beiges. Though I referenced Airborne while I painted, as I worked, the painting again seemed to take on a life of its own, giving me a sense of movement in space that made me think of calling it Cosmos.
While it has been said that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” it has never been more true than now, when almost everyone can take a photograph on a phone or tablet and show the world whatever it is that words fail to describe. A picture of a painting is another matter altogether (some are better than others, but none can really serve to replace the original), so I can only hope that these photos convey a sense of the depth, the diffusion and the movement in both Airborne and Cosmos.
Note: Btw, I called my last posting Deep Purple and a Little Blue, assuming that everyone would understand what that meant and thinking that it was a clever little title. Then I spoke to a few people considerably younger than I and realized I needed to explain it. First, the background in the painting is a deep purple; “blue” means x-rated, pornographic or sexual, as in blue movies, comedy routines, books or whatever, and was a more popular term in the days when Lucy couldn’t be shown sleeping in the same bed as Desi and all expletives had to be deleted. Now you can see naked body parts and more on cable TV, no one uses the term “blue” to describe humor or language any more, and Fifty Shades of Grey is on the NY Times best seller list. So please try reading that post again: Deep Purple and a Little Blue.
Apparently, jellyfish is a misnomer; except for the fact that they live underwater, jellies have no relation to fish at all. I find them fabulous, strangely beautiful and sensuous. There are so many different species–kaleidoscopically colorful, even bioluminescent and fluorescent, particularly in the deepest and coldest seas. There are creatures no bigger than my thumbnail and others that grow as large as six feet in diameter with tentacles more than twenty feet long. What I enjoy most about painting jellies is the challenge of creating transparency and movement on a solid and stationary surface. And the colors on some of them!
I painted Modern Family a couple of years ago, choosing to group some of my favorite species on one canvas. As I painted, I started to think of the big guy as the head of the family with the little woman to his right (she’s quite the looker); the twins are on the left with their younger brother, who wants to tag along, and their sister is on the right, swimming off on her own. Sometimes titles come easy.
I just finished painting Out of Reach, a portrait of a stinger jellyfish found in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The color of the water is drawn from my memories of the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia, a place we visited almost twenty five years ago. Heaven…