What we find in the woods is mysterious and true

TM9696 What we find in the woods is mysterious and true 36×36 oil and pencil on panel

Many people ask why I spend so much time rambling around Hamlen Woods, painting the same swamps and trees, pond and creek. Why not go to (fill in the blank). They don’t understand that every visit is new. I know the heron’s favorite trees, where the ferret swims, where the snakes like to sun in the fall, and where ducks like to wade the path to get to the bigger pond. Also the best spots for blueberries, the shallows where the frogs hold forth, and when to photograph the swans without scaring them. In winter, I study ice patterns, and they are always different. Last week I saw columns of crystals growing in the shallows, connecting the icy surface to the pond floor. I never see the same thing twice.

And then there’s what happens when I return to the studio, full of ideas, sounds, and visually memorized details to paint. Each painting session includes whatever I saw (and felt) from my last visit, merging into one visual statement that somehow expresses another aspect of the place.

What we find in the woods is mysterious and true is certainly an example of this hybridization. It also delves further into my experimentation with rollers and pencils as tools for painting. Details below. Enjoy.

TM9696 What we find in the woods is mysterious and true – detail from left side
TM9696 What we find in the woods is mysterious and true – detail from upper left
TM9696 What we find in the woods is mysterious and true – detail from lower left
TM9696 What we find in the woods is mysterious and true – detail from center showing use of transparent and opaque paint
TM9696 What we find in the woods is mysterious and true – detail from upper right

Technical painting note: Since the captions describe some of the process, let me just add that while the linework variations are becoming more diverse, I am also interested in the contrasts of transparency vs. opacity, and letting some of the thinly glazed substrate show through in the final painting, making the layers more obvious and enhancing the sense of depth.

Finding the Poetry in Winter

TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter 42×42 oil and pencil on panel

I always start with an idea, but after the first or second day of work, the painting often flies off in a new direction. When I started Finding the Poetry in Winter, I was aiming for something minimal based on walks at my pond this December, something as subtle as some of Brian Eno’s soundscapes and taking advantage of chance (as John Cage so wisely mastered).

As the work developed, I saw more and more potential for merging painting and drawing. Using a darker, thick ebony pencil I could make a dark line and score through the wet paint, leaving ridges to catch subsequent rolls of thin color. Painted and rolled lines offered wonderful contrast. To keep the lines from being too intentional, I rolled transparent neutral gray tones over the wet lines. The roller smudged and “repeated” the lines in a way I couldn’t predict. The more I layered pencil and paint strokes with rolled glazes, the richer the surface became. As the days of work progressed, the surfaces became more varied and the palimpsests more evocative. I especially like the way this new way of working lets my thought process show through.

Details from the finished painting below, followed by views of the painting in progress.

TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter – detail from above and to the left of center
TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter – detail from upper right
TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter – detail from right side
TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter – detail from below center
TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter – detail from left side

Daily progress

TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter – day one
TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter – day two

Despite the bold start, after many glazes, spatter, and rerolls, the image almost disappeared. However, I liked the pencil strokes and ghosts, and the feel of the piece. A little more drama wouldn’t hurt, however. I increased the contrast again, and added more of the roller and pencil drawing.

TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter – day three
TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter – day four

Day five brought much more drawing after rolling semi-transparent glazes over much of the painting to lighten the mood. It was a day of learning what drawing then over-rolling could do.

TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter – day five
TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter – detail from upper left
TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter – detail from upper right
TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter – day six, with more drawing

By day six, I knew a lot more about drawing with the roller and with pencil, interweaving the direct work with over-rolls of nearly transparent grays. Fun, and wintry, but still not enough surface interest. There is so much that I observe at the pond, and this felt too much like one moment, rather than a summation of all that I had observed during this snowless December/January.

TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter – day seven – showing radical restart with loose rolls of dark blackish blue to restate strong gestures and explore the “ghosts” that would show through. The ghosts felt more like the delicate bare branches, and I had more drama. Now to refine it a bit and draw into the surface, making it richer still.
TM9695 Finding the Poetry in Winter 42×42 oil and pencil on panel, Day eight, finished

Singing May

TM9693 Singing May 36×40 oil on panel

The energy of May is astounding. You can hear the songs of peepers, frogs, the melodic chirps of birds, the lilting sound of water rippling through the wetlands. Then there is all that green sprouting and budding. The mix of sounds is spontaneous and jazz-like, which is why Singing May is composed with layers of color and rhythm built over a loose and spontaneously gestural base layer. The images and details are both felt and remembered, based on dozens of photos and an intense familiarity with the place. The paintings are also a way of extending my time in the woods, a way to take it home with me and play with it. Details below. Enjoy.

TM9693 Singing May – detail from center right
TM9693 Singing May – detail from upper right
TM9693 Singing May – detail from center left
TM9693 Singing May – detail from lower left
TM9693 Singing May – detail from upper left

Technical painting notes: I’ve painted several versions of late May at Hamlen Woods, exploring different approaches. With Singing May, I wanted to emphasize the energetic and musical quality of the season. The first day’s work established textures, staccato rhythms, and basic values, setting up the framework for further work. I used soft rubber rollers and thinned oil paint.

TM9693 Singing May Day One

When the base layer was dry, I glazed with transparent color, establishing the primary blue and green areas. From there, I began refining the reflected blues and whites of the sky, then pulling out details of the various greens (warm to cool, light to dark). I tried to keep as much of the accidental quality as possible, taking advantage of the accidents that occur with solvents and re-rolling. With the basic colors down, I added complements of orange and violet seen in the reflections, and used brushes and narrow rollers to paint the reflected branches. The ripples were added using brush and roller.

TM9693 Singing May – Day Two

The final day’s work included strengthening lights and darks, adding highlights to the emerging grasses, and working up more contrasts of warm and cool.

TM9693 Singing May 36×40 oil on panel (finished)

Salut!

TM9690 Salut! 7×7 oil on paper

The more I come to understand all the incredible attributes of trees, the more I am in awe. I guess it’s partly the way they keep trying. Storms come through and knock out the older trees, and before long a new generation occupies the clear space. In the meantime, the decaying tree is home to so many critters. Watching all this change and renewal gives me hope. Of course we have to do our part, too. Enjoy.

Technical painting notes: I started the painting by loosely blocking in the larger shapes, then, while the paint was still wet, used a scraper and a pencil to start indicating the trunks and limbs. When the base layer was dry, I painted the negative sky areas and refined the trunks, adding highlights as well as using the pencil to define more details.

Wetland Woods – December

TM9689 Wetland Woods – December 30×60 oil on panel

After a brief freeze, we are back to freakishly warm temperatures and plenty of rain. The swamp is looking great, and water levels at the pond are getting closer to “normal.” I was looking forward to working on more ice paintings, but they will happen soon enough. For now, the glorious blue sky is livening the subdued palette of early December, and I am thrilled to be painting. Details below. Enjoy.

TM9689 Wetland Woods – December – detail from center with last floating leaves
TM9689 Wetland Woods – December – detail from right side
TM9689 Wetland Woods – December – detail from upper left

Technical painting notes: I used a roll-up of dark blackish brown paint to indicate the gestures of the reflected trees and their branches, then used transparent glazes to adjust color. This was followed by more detailed brushwork to establish the negative spaces of the sky and cloud reflections. With the basics underway, I switched back to narrower rollers to indicate more branches. I rolled softer tones over some areas to push back and soften some of the reflections. More glazes, followed by detailing the leaves, brought the painting to near completion. Final color adjustments using semi-transparent paint were rolled on, with highlights reestablished with careful brushwork. I find that using the roller to manipulate paint and soften edges works well, and the soft rubber Speedball rollers are great for glazing large areas even if the paint is still slightly tacky.

What I Found in the Woods

TM9687 What I Found in the Woods 36×42 oil on panel

Approaching the woods, it’s all about anticipation, wondering what I will find. Sometimes a lovely patch of mature woods, other times the tangled, exuberant growth and broken branches of edges, or the relics of past use. All are fabulous subjects for inspiration, an anchor point for starting a painting. In this case, the colors are wintery with notes of ochre, Mars violet, ultramarine blue, and burnt umber mixed or glazed to form warm/cool intersections. The dark, rolled base and textures show through subsequent layers, adding interest and depth. On another level, learning to follow my instincts and take advantage of the accidents and “mis-takes” gives me more confidence to follow the mysteries out there. More details below. Enjoy.

TM9687 What I Found in the Woods – detail showing use of scraping with infill (broad white bands), and narrow “drawn” lines done with edge of rubber roller
TM9687 What I Found in the Woods Today – detail from right of center with gestures of tangled branches. Walking the woods and overgrown fields in Massachusetts, one usually finds signs of previous use, like old stone walls, foundations, and more recent wooden fence posts.
TM9687 What I Found in the Woods – close-up
TM9687 What I Found in the Woods – detail from upper left side

Technical painting notes: With a bold and unexpected start my priority was keeping as much of the original layer as possible, while bringing in more hints of color and depth. I used translucent grays over colored glazes to soften and recede some areas. I pulled up some of the whites in the scraped parts to reinforce their prominence. I used a roller with various gray mixtures to push some areas further back, soften edges, and for the accidents that always happen. The edge of the roller is great for drawing fine lines.

Buckthorn City

TM9684 Buckthorn City 30×36 oil on panel

This week I made the formal acquaintance of my nemesis – Common Buckthorn. I encounter it in the wild, and invading people’s yards. It’s one tough tree/shrub that manages to live almost everywhere, forming dense, impenetrable tangles that block my way. I understand goats can eat their way into it. Bravo Goats! I can’t help but admire its toughness, even in the more dormant November form it is a challenging, linear subject that appeals to me. And I also hate it. Details below. Enjoy.

TM9684 Buckthorn City – detail from upper left
TM9684 Buckthorn City – detail from left side
TM9684 Buckthorn City – detail from right side

Technical painting notes: This view of tangling Buckthorn by a Beaver Pond was accomplished using mostly rollers of various sizes and harks back to my time spent doing woodcuts. I started with a bold lay up of very dark, reddish black paint to set the vertical gestures of trees, then played with scrapers, and smaller rollers to “draw” branches and viny growth. Something about the aggressive Buckthorn seemed to demand a more aggressive approach.

Sanctuary #5 – Drizzly October

TM9683 Sanctuary #5 – Drizzly October 36×40 oil on panel

I’ve been playing with my woods lately, experimenting with layering more textures and combining loose and controlled approaches to the work. Sanctuary #5 – Drizzly October has the bright colors of fall subdued by the rain, mists, and fog we’ve been experiencing lately. The atmospherics soften the effect of all the color and bring a sense of quiet and peaceful harmony to the whole. Once again, a little patch of woods delivers all the inspiration I need.

Technical painting notes: This painting went through quite a few changes during its development. It started with a monoprint approach, rolling dark oil paint onto the panel and working to set the major linear gestures with a lot of texture. Later work included glazing and brushwork to bring the subject into focus, as shown below:

TM9683 Sanctuary #5 – Drizzly October – showing progress after day 6

While I liked the way it was progressing, it seemed too direct, too obvious. I wanted to find poetic possibilities in October, not just the bright colors. On a whim, I mixed a semitransparent gray/beige color and tried rolling it over parts of the painting, I loved the way it exaggerated the 3-D effect of the impasto knifework. I also mixed a pale, semi-transparent gray/blue and started rolling that onto the painting. It started to feel like the fogginess I observed while driving to the studio, adding a sense of concealed mystery to the piece. Additional brushwork to refine the negative space, more tree limbs and scrub, and the addition of many more super fine stems and branches (dark and light) added more depth. details below.

TM9683 Sanctuary #5 – Drizzly October – detail from upper center showing layered semi-transparent paint application with rollers
TM9683 Sanctuary #5 – Drizzly October – detail from center top edge showing use of palette knife, brushwork, roller, spatter, and scraping
TM9683 Sanctuary #5 – Drizzly October – detail from upper left
TM9683 Sanctuary #5 – Drizzly October – detail from upper right