I have been very busy over the past few weeks… life has been… a lot. Between driving kids places, working, a colonoscopy, Rachel getting a biopsy and a lumpectomy – I’ve been very busy.
But, I am still trying to find time to paint and draw. Recently, I finished this painting, which is one of the rare ones I am proud of, so I wanted to take a moment to write about it.
I have been reading through Watercolor: A History by Marie-Pierre Salé. It is interesting to read through how cherished watercolor painting was in the past, and how thoroughly it was denigrated in the not so distant past. It’s a shame that Watercolor has gained a reputation as a medium inferior to oil painting. I don’t know exactly what has led to people viewing watercolor as inherently fragile, but it certainly has that reputation. Perhaps I’ll write about that one day.
Anyway – on to this painting.
I set up a few books, and a wooden carver’s mallet on my table, and decided to try my hand at a still life. I really liked the composition with the mallet at the bottom of the frame, sitting horizontally, creating a base for the rest of the composition to rest upon. And, because I liked the mallet horizontal, I decided to go with a portrait orientation, in order to put a bunch of space above the mallet – in order to give the impression that it was supporting a lot of weight.
I drew the books and the mallet as precisely as I could, being careful to measure the size of each object in relation to themselves, and I rendered them at a 1:1 scale. Then, I painted the background with a light mixture of ultramarine blue and raw umber (I think… honestly, I forget, but I think that’s what I did.) Then, when the sheen was gone, I sprayed the paper with water to add that texture to the background.
When I looked at the image at that point, I felt that there was too much empty space above the books. So I pulled an old window frame into the composition behind the books. That provided some vertical lines which made the books feel like they were part of the space above. I then painted the window frame very carefully with a tiny brush. I’m really happy that I did this, as that frame ended up being my favorite part of the painting.
Finally, I painted clean water on the areas where the glass is, and waited for the paper to absorb most of that water. I then added the shadow. I mixed some Ultramarine Blue and Raw Umber (again, I think) to a milk consistency, and used a half-inch flat brush to paint the shadow. I painted the shadow in three strokes, in order to make sure the pigment spread out as smoothly as possible. This worked really, really well. At first, I was worried that the shadow was going to dry in blotchy puddles, but I trusted the process and just let it sit and dry on its own time. This is what helped that pigment smooth out and create those really gorgeous soft edges. If I had messed around with it at this stage, or used a hair drier, the effect would have been ruined. I’m learning more and more to just trust the pigment to do it’s thing, and here that paid off.
Next, I painted the top book. I tried to capture the light as I saw it on the book. At first glimpse, the back cover of the book seems like it would just be a single value. But sitting in my chair, and looking very closely, I noticed quite a few subtle variations in value which gave the book a soft feel. It was difficult to recreate those subtle changes in value, but I am proud of how I did.
the book is lying face-down, so I didn’t have to worry about the design on the cover. This wasn’t intentional, but when I got to painting it, I realized what a happy accident it was. I’m afraid if I had tried to include the design on the cover of the book it would have distracted from the mallet, which I really wanted to be the focus of the painting.
Next I painted the second book. This is the Greek New Testament that I bought in grad school. I always meant to learn Koine Greek, but never got much further than halfway through a grammar. As a result, I can sound out the words on the page, but I only know what one in ten of the words mean.
This book has a leather texture on its cover, and I really wanted to capture that pattern – but it turned out really hard to recreate. I think I was trying too hard to exactly match the folds and mounds in the texture, and as a result it just started to read like a tangle of lines. So, I scrubbed that out, and relied on the texture of the paper to communicate the pattern. This worked much better, but some of those initial lines remain. I think the two methods actually work together very well to give the impression I was after.
When I painted the second book, I accidentally dropped a bit of water on the corner of the top book. I dabbed it off with a paper towel, which lifted a bit of pigment. (I used a lot of potter’s pink on that book, which doesn’t stain at all.) That little bit of lifted pigment looked a little bit like the spine was folded there. I really liked that effect, so I exaggerated it with a deeper shadow above the highlight, and it worked really well to communicate a fold in the textile.
The next book I had to change a little bit. In real life, that book is a very muted grey color, but when I painted it, the grey seemed to blend into the background too much. So, I saturated the colors a bit in order to pull the book forward. I also focused very closely on preserving the highlights in the spine of that book. When I thought I was finished, I realized that the shadows needed to be about two shades darker, but I decided to wait before I committed to going that dark.
The last book was similar in color to the table, so I painted the table, that book, and the mallet all in one color, being careful to preserve the whites of the pages of the Hebrew Bible. This is my favorite book out of the ones in that stack, so it was important to me to have the pages a part of the composition. I studied the Hebrew Bible for my Master’s Degree at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, so this book holds a very special place in my heart. And, unlike the Novum Testamentum, I can read this one – though I need a lot of time, a grammar, and a dictionary to translate it, because I’m years out of practice.
After painting everything down on the bottom in the same color, I painted shadows to differentiate the objects from one another. I knew that the mallet would end up being very different in color from the rest, but I wanted to keep that golden tone for the highlights, so I didn’t go too dark on the mallet right away.
I then used the same pigment I had used to paint the table to darken a few shapes, in order to communicate the butcher-block pattern in my table. I focused just on the large shapes at this stage, and saved the actual grain patterns for the next step.
I also added some shadows to the mallet here, most of these I thought would be covered up by the last stage of painting – but they ended up being really useful because it helped me from going too far, and making the mallet all one value.
Next, I used the same colors to paint the wood grain itself. This was mostly done with pigment at a tea consistency on dry paper. In some places, I then used clean water to pull the pigment up the page, which resulted in sharp edges on one side, and smooth gradients above it. You can see this best in the bottom right corner.
Then, I finally started to focus on the mallet. I started wood working after we bought this house. It was always something that I enjoyed thinking about, and I have fond memories of sitting in the garage at Merry Mound listening to my dad cut wood with his screeching radial saw. When we moved to this house, we kept one room in the basement as a small workshop for me, and I regularly head down there to make things. I have build a few doll houses there, and countless pieces of junk – as well as a few things that we use every day (including the table that is in this painting.) The mallet itself was purchased from a flea market. I’ve never used it, I just love how worn it looks – you can see where the carver hit the chisels because it’s worn down that dimple in the head of the mallet.
Once I was happy with the mallet, I looked at the whole image, and darkened all of the shadows (except the shadows behind the window frame). This made it easier to get all those shadows consistent – and reinforced the feeling that they were all being cast by the same light source. I also deepened the color of the mallet a bit, but for the most part this last step was just focused on the shadows.
Then I added my signature, and sat back because I was really proud of this one.
It just now struck me that this painting is very much a little biography of me. When I was in High School, I wrote poetry all the time. My friend Kevin Vincent used to come to my house after school, we would stop at the grocery store and buy limes and apples, and we would then go to his house or my house, and critique the poems we each wrote while eating apples or sucking on sour limes (depending on if we thought the poem was good or bad.) I used to keep a leather journal in my pocket, and I would pull it out to write a poem about what was going on all the time. Writing was a huge part of my life all the way through college and into getting married. I don’t know exactly why I stopped writing poems all the time, but I did. Maybe I’ll get back into it one day.
The Novum Testamentum communicates my religious side. I am what I call an agnostic Christian these days. I believe that Jesus’ death on the cross made it possible for Human beings to achieve communion with God – but I don’t think it’s the sort of thing anyone can know for certain. I admit, I could be totally wrong. Essentially, the arguments I hear Atheists make regarding the non-existence of God are usually valid, and occassionally sound – but I am not persuaded to abandon my faith. It might be that my Christian faith is just a product of my upbringing – it might be rooted in truth. I don’t know. But I do know that I believe God exists. I believe God loves us, and I believe God made it possible for us to spend time with It by coming here and dying on the cross. I also believe that the Earth is billions of years old, that we are the product of evolution, that Moses never existed, and I’m not convinced that Jesus rose from the dead. But still, I believe in the salvific force of the cross, and the divinity of Jesus – so I call myself a Christian. A lot of other Christians tell me I’m not, but frankly – given the company that Christians are keeping these days (Ken Ham, Donald Trump, bigoted White Christian Nationalists), I’m perfectly happy to be excluded from that group. Don’t get me wrong – there are far more wonderful humans who are Christians than there are White Christian Nationalists – but unfortunately those White Christian Nationalists are the loudest members of the group right now, and I want absolutely nothing to do with those fuckers.
The Divine Comedy was my favorite book when I was in college.
I just realized that the rest of this post was somehow deleted. I might get around to rewriting it one day, but I don’t have time now. Suffice it to say I think the Divine Comedy is gorgeous, but a silly take on the after