Tuesday, July 27, 2010


There is a wonderful model named Stephanie who moved back to New Mexico over a year ago. Before she left, I prepared a painting of her for when she was gone: a reference drawing and a bunch of reference photographs. I do this for every painting, but usually I then paint from the actual model. This was not going to be possible with the last Stephanie painting.

I find it very difficult to paint without a model present - where's the fun in that? But I really liked this painting idea. Stephanie doesn't have an angry bone in her body, but I wanted the painting to be angry: almost impossible to look at. I had an idea for how to do that, too, and the idea was cadmium orange. Why cadmium orange? It's a hot color, and when used unwisely, an intense and ugly color. I had some idea of what it could do based on a portrait I painted when I was just starting out as a painter, in 2005:

I never painted the background, but I'm very fond of this painting, which was my second serious painting. The color in it is not unbearable - there is a cold light from the left which keeps it under control. But I used a lot of hot colors on the right, not really knowing what I was doing. I've thought about it since then, though, and what I wanted to do was a painting with only the hot colors on the right. A painting without relief from the hot colors. That was the idea for this Stephanie painting. Here's the palette I set up for it:

It's a simple palette, and I thought about it for a long time before I started the painting. It includes only naples yellow, cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, cadmium red, burnt sienna, burnt umber, and ivory black. There's no white, because white is too tempting - you can make anything brighter with some white, but it also cools the image down. It's a respite from the hot colors. And I debated long and hard about using black in the painting. Black also functions as a relative cool in a situation like the one I was setting up, and I didn't want to leave myself anywhere to turn when I inevitably sought to balance the colors in the painting. But I figured I could keep it under control.

Amusingly, what I ultimately wound up using for a cool was naples yellow. A cool yellow, relative to those fearful cadmium colors.

The painting was about fury, and the fury was in the image, but it was also in the color. Having a model present is like having a physical bedrock for your work. When you are wandering adrift in the nebulous region between your mind and your paint brush, you can look to the model, and the presence of the model will remind you what you're doing. A photograph is no substitute.

In this instance, the physical bedrock was the cadmium orange. It's simply unworkable, it's a horrible color. It's best used for little passages, like if someone is wearing a garish orange sash - that's a nice place to put some cadmium orange. I suppose you could mix cadmium orange into a perfectly acceptable flesh mix, but my goal was to deal with from-the-tube cadmium orange, the pure goblin. So I wrestled with cadmium orange the whole time, and that was the physicality underlying the making of the painting: the paint itself. I would shy away from using any more cadmium orange, and then I would force myself to cover a whole area with cadmium orange and then deal with it. If I found myself leaning on the comparatively civilized burnt sienna, I would immediately shift back to cadmium orange. Perhaps I got carried away, but I liked this experimental procedure.

I worked on the painting for four days, from start to finish. Four very long days - it's close to life-sized:

You Will Not Be Forgiven, 60"x36", oil on canvas, 2010

I don't know about you, but for my part, I have noticed that I am only permitted to do anything once. What I mean is this - I had an unusual degree of knowing in advance what the colors I chose for this painting would do. Usually, I don't know exactly where I'm going with any particular thing. It's better, for me, not to know: my best work rides along the very edge of failure. I struggle and sweat for all these skills, but the skills are best in the minute before I master them. Once I know how to control them totally, their use loses its intensity, it becomes complacent. With this painting, I threw everything I know about color at it, almost certain that it would work. It did work - it might not work for you, but it works for me in the sense that I asked the colors to do something, and they did precisely that. If I were to do that again, without introducing some element I do not know how to control, I think I would make a boring painting.

Since I finished this painting, I've started four new ones, with models thankfully present. I'm trying a new color theory for the flesh in the Claudia painting I talked about below. I'm trying to depict extreme light over-exposure with stylized hot midtones in a second painting. In a third, the entire figure is cool-color stylized midtones: I will have to go much farther with grays than I ever have. And in the fourth, I am painting everything in a completely lunatic greenish indigo, and working on distressing the image enough to make some parts of it unreadable. We'll see how that goes.

I think the key is this - to continue finding a way to be at the very start of things. It is at the end of things that we stiffen and become inflexible. Our masterful technique reads as dead. It is at the start that there is excitement, a sense of opportunity and possibility. There is inevitable awkwardness, but I have always thought that awkwardness was a reasonable price to pay for life.

Look, I'm no romantic about crudity. The more masterful you become, the more this mastery serves as a foundation for your sense of being at the beginning. It is a background noise, but a background noise that makes the painting, overall, well executed. The awkwardnesses rise to higher levels. But the awkwardnesses continue to serve as a talisman of vitality and the beginning. Without the mastery, the expression falters, and without the excitement of beginning, there is rarely anything to express.


  1. Dani. I am extremely fond of this painting and it's a treat to get such fascinating insight into its creation!

    Often, your posts have a line or thought that jumps out at me like a favorite painting. This is today's:

    "I struggle and sweat for all these skills, but the skills are best in the minute before I master them."

  2. Ed - thank you! I'm glad you like the painting too... I haven't forgotten that I owe you a post on working with models, by the way. And I owe a lot of that thought to conversation with Stephen Wright, who is probably my favorite living painter. Do you find that you experience the same thing, about the experience of mastering a skill?

  3. I'll let you know as soon as I come close to mastering a skill!

    Seriously, even though I am a novice, I relate to your thoughts on the subject when it comes to carving for woodcut prints. I am almost entirely self taught, so there is a lot of experimenting with different tools and techniques. Some work, some don't. But I do find that the *tone* of the work - for lack of a better word - is different and more dynamic before I get comfortable with a particular way of holding the blade or a particular angle of the cut or something.

    I never really know if I'm making sense when I talk about art. Because I don't read or talk or write about it hardly at all.