One of my favorite artists, Richard Diebenkorn, used to talk about purposefully making “mistakes” in the early stages of a painting. This would give him something to change as he worked. I often think of this as I make paintings. In the early stages of a painting, I’ll purposefully use colors that don’t feel like they go together – or make shapes that aren’t right, so I can make changes as I build up the paintings. This process of searching for an image is something that I enjoy. By working in this way, there is no pressure to get it “right” in one go, and the finished painting is a result of this process of making changes.
Maybe it’s tied to my ego – that I feel I need a certain amount of layers of paint to make it worthy of putting into the world. Maybe when I’m making paintings at 90, they’ll be very minimal Motherwell-like pieces because I’ll have no need to prove anything anymore.
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People ask me if I prefer working big or small. I do enjoy working on both scales. Each size has its benefits. The experience of making a large or small painting is very different – both for the artist and for the viewer. I choose to work at both scales for the following reasons:
Small work can often be completed in one sitting and doesn’t require a lot of equipment. This makes it particularly well suited for traveling or when you don’t have a dedicated studio space. I used to make small works when we lived in Australia and the contents of my “studio” could fit into a cardboard box that lived on our dining room table. I still make small works when traveling, when I want to work outdoors, or when trying out new ideas. Sometimes smaller work ends up inspiring larger pieces.
When I make plein air paintings – the ones I paint on location – I am making both a small artwork and also in a way, doing research for more abstract work. While I look at a landscape and make the small paintings outside, I build a memory bank of images, shapes, colors, light effects, and even sounds and smells that I can later refer to in more abstract pieces.
For you, the viewer, the experience with a small painting is more intimate than with a large one. Only one person at a time can really savor a small work at close proximity.
A large painting takes much longer to make than a little painting. Even the preparation of the painting surface (canvas or wood panel) takes much longer. It takes a couple of hours to build and stretch a big canvas, and painting each layer of gesso (a kind of primer) takes about 30 minutes compared to just a few minutes per layer for a small painting.
Working on a large painting can be daunting at first – that’s a lot canvas to fill! – but on the other hand, it’s exhilarating to make something larger than myself. I can use my whole body – working crouched close to the ground or reaching out. In the case of super big work like Paper Mountain, I worked with assistants using scaffolding, lifts, and ladders. It’s exciting to create something bigger than we are as humans.
We have a particular experience when we stand far from artwork, and another experience when we are close to it. The piece fills our field of view. I think about this as I make a piece – it’s important to me to create a special experience for viewers of my work. I want to draw you in to examine the work more closely. When I create little surprises in a painting – details that can only be appreciated at close range – I am rewarding you for coming closer. My work is driven by my experience in the outdoors, so when I make something big, I hope that the work transports viewers to the outdoors or a memory of being outside.
Making bigger work requires a longer commitment and focus than making small work. Keeping the energy of the piece going and working through tough spots can be challenging because of the scale of the work. On the other hand, making big work is rewarding just by its sheer scale. There is something special about making something larger than yourself.
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Check out the following blog posts if you’re curious…
This one if you want to see what it’s like to build a super big canvas
This post if you want to see how my team put together Paper Mountain installation. And here’s the project page.
And this post if you want to see how I pack my plein air painting kit in a cigar box.
I finished installing Paper Mountain at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art last week. After one year of planning, three months of folding paper cranes, and one week of installation with a team, it feels good to see the project come to life and to share it with others.
Below are two time lapse videos showing the installation process from Saturday night through Wednesday. I used GoPros to shoot one photo per minute for the duration of the installation. The first video was shot from the ground floor, and the second was shot from the mezzanine for a bird’s eye view. These are the steps we followed to install Paper Mountain:
Assemble the scaffold (not for the faint of heart)
Place tape on the floor to mark the footprint of the mountain
Attach the wire fence to the ceiling trusses
Tie fishing line to the wire
Open each crane (fold wings down)
Pierce the top of a crane with a needle
Run fishing line through a crane
Place crane at correct height
Squeeze split shot (small lead weight) under the bird to hold it in place
Here’s a time lapse video showing the process of making an abstract landscape painting. This one was the third in a series of four that I made. You may notice the little drawing pinned up to the right of the painting. This is a loose reference drawing that I made from a friend’s photo of a valley in Spain. The photo really inspired me when I saw it – something about the big space, the layering of shapes of grass, ground, rock, and sky – so I asked my friend if I could make some work inspired by the photo.
If you look closely, you’ll see that part of the way through I swapped my acrylic cart out for my oil painting tabouret. I often start my paintings in acrylic so that I can more quickly put down successive layers of paint (acrylic dries very quickly – for a split second I use a hair dryer to speed up the process), then I move into oil paint which dries much more slowly. Some people are sticklers to one medium over the other, but I think they each have their benefits and drawbacks, and they are ultimately means to an end. I use what works best for me at any point during the process. Once you start working in oils though, there’s no going back to acrylic. The painting would literally fall apart since acrylic dries too fast for the oil paint to dry properly under it.
Last night we shot the process of painting a series of small works on paper. Working on this particular set of paintings is a meditative process. While I work on pieces like these, I focus and get into a “zone” if you will. For these paintings I used a very limited palette and improvised. During this process I am looking at composition – the way the marks of paint, ink, and graphite interact with each other and the space around them. Elements such as how light or dark a mark is against another mark, the speed of brush marks, the direction in which I pull the brush, all these aspects come into play in the finished piece. I enjoy how paired down this process is – I’m not working with an image or a plan in mind. This is a truly meditative process during which I am 100% focused – all superfluous thoughts fall away. For me, this is the essence of painting and it ties into being in tune with nature. This sense of being in the “zone” or at one with a process is similar to the feeling I get when I am riding my bike or running hard – when all the extraneous noise falls away, and the experience of moving through space becomes the only thing that matters at that very moment.