Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A series of successful experiments culminates in a failed painting.

I think I painted this last week, approximately.  It's been something of a blur lately, with everything going on.   Sometimes, I end up with something I will never put on display, because it's essentially meaningless and falls significantly short of my standard of beauty, but which I will also never paint over, because I don't dare forget the lessons learnt.

With this one, I was playing around with a couple of things.  First off- the pink.  Normally, I only use the three factory-mixed primaries, black and white (what I call my Basic 5).  I used to work a lot with custom-tinted paint back in the day, but the liquid colourants they use at the store behave in a fundamentally different way than the powdered pigments they use at the factory, so I discontinued their use years ago when I started standardizing my materials.

However- the last time I was at the store to pick up some paint, I happened to spy a few cans of mistinted Larcoloid (the only paint I'll ever really love) being sold at a hefty discount.  There were two quarts of slightly different bluish-greens and a gallon of this fantastic pink, and all three of them colours I can't quite duplicate with my Basic 5.  And at $5.00/qt and $10.00/gal, I almost felt like I was stealing them when I cashed out at the register.

This panel started off basically as a place for me to push a ton of this pink paint around with a squeegee and experiment with laying other colours and combinations of colours over it to get a sense of the relative density of the colourants.  This way I could figure out how to incorporate the pink into other works without too many unexpected consequences.

Also, I wanted to see how the paint (in general, not just the pink), would behave if I created areas of very different depths in the paint.  Normally on a canvas, the weight of the paint forces everything to pool slightly toward the center, but I'd noticed that on these birch panels I'm using pretty often now the paint seems to stay put better, and I wanted to push that envelope a little.  How much paint could I pool up in one place without it sliding around past where I'd put it into areas of very thinly-applied paint?

At some point in the process, as usually happens, I got a little distracted.  This is often a good thing, especially with these sorts of experimental meanderings.  In fact, I generally try to create a situation in which I have a few different kinds of stimuli to keep me from thinking too much about what I'm doing.  On a really good day, I can have Pandora playing from the netbook, a CD in the stereo, a little spillover from Meghan's headphones and whatever song she's got cranked up on single-track repeat while she's writing, sidewalk construction outside, making the floor vibrate intermittently in delayed-reaction staccato to the cracking of jackhammers on concrete, the smells of cigarette smoke, hot, aromatic coffee with too much sugar, and last night's glass of bourbon next to the sink all competing for my attention.  This overstimulation seems to have the dual effect of increasing the possibility both that I won't get too obsessed with any one particular detail and also that I'll accidentally do something I hadn't planned for. 

What happened here was a really cool accident with that yellow you see toward the center.  I had mixed the yellow with a tiny bit of black and drizzled it over a particularly large pool of relatively deep pink and black.  Then I took a large squeegee, which still had a little of the pink paint on it, and dragged the pink and black from the top to the bottom of the panel, figuring it would mix the yellow into the pool and create some interesting streaks.  But instead, the yellow disappeared completely.  I had inadvertently wrapped the yellow up in a pocket of pink and black, like a bubble. 

So I stood there and stared at it for a while, waiting to see if the yellow would seep up back to the surface, as can sometimes happen.  It didn't.  This was totally unprecedented.  Awesome.  But of course, who fucking cares if there's a bubble of paint hidden down there where no one can see?  So I popped the bubble.  I took one of my larger brushes, and basically slapped it.  The yellow shot out, twirling slightly in the air, pulling some of the black along with it, and then splashed back down on the surface.  Then little air bubbles started to burble up, creating a really fun texture.

The blue and white up top, with the black "V" in the corner was a series of inquiries about working subtractively and then re-filling voids to get simple concise lines.  That worked out fairly well too.

So now I've got a better sense of how the pink will behave with the rest of my palette, I know that I can pool the paint up significantly deeper on a wooden panel than a canvas one, I've learnt a bit more about this additive/subtractive thing I've been playing with for a while, and I discovered a cool trick I'll want to try to recreate again later.  Was it because of the pink, or can I do that with any combination of colours?

However, the painting itself isn't particularly appealing.  The composition is a little trite and cheesy, and there's as much much emotional depth as there was emotional input (zero).  Most of the time when a painting ends up this way, it goes into the "to be painted over" pile under my workbench.  Not this one though.  It'll never see a gallery, but I'll keep it on my wall to remind me what I've learnt.   

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is my art linked somehow to my pain?

I don't normally post twice in a day, but I'll keep this one short.  Because I have to.  Those of you who read my blog regularly are probably sick of hearing about my skull fracture back in January, but it's impossible for me to forget, because ever since, I've been plagued by migraines, which keeps the experience pretty relevant.

And I have another one coming on now.  I'll have to take my pill momentarily, before this thing makes me feel like a fucking baby and start to cry.   I had two last week, and now another today.  They seem to be increasing in frequency.

But the art has gotten so much better in the meantime.  Will this pain be the price I have to pay?

Bad Art, Good Art, and a little Magic

This painting is unfinished, based on a photograph I took a few years ago of a model who prefers to remain anonymous. I decided I needed to stop avoiding the brush, as well as the idea that a painting should be completed in one sitting.

The problem is, I think now I may have been right all along. When I stop partway through a painting with the intention of completing it later, I nearly always end up getting so bogged down that it feels more like the goal is to fix the painting instead of to simply finish it, and this always leads to a certain frustration. I paint moments. It's not enough, apparently to work from a snapshot. I need to live the snapshot. It's not just about taking a slice of time and then recreating it later. It's about living and painting in the moment. I've started (and not finished) 3 or 4 paintings based on this photo alone, and I suspect this piece will join the rest in that pile.

I only realized this very recently though, and not before I managed to mangle a few more panels. Two weeks ago, I had Katie Marie over for a session, and decided to continue exploring this idea that a painting could span a couple of sessions.

When our three hours was up, I had gotten as far as what you see to the left here, and I was very optimistic about the potential of the painting. Having stared at it for weeks now though, and compared it to the reference photo I took, I'm totally disheartened. I know now that when Katie next comes over to sit for me, if I try to simply finish the piece we started, it's going to be nothing but frustration. I may just paint over it.

I started suspecting this to be the case about a week ago, when Jen Catalano and I had our last session, but I still hadn't entirely convinced myself it was self-defeating to try to paint outside the moment, or to stretch moments into weeks. Jen has been a real inspiration for quite awhile now. She reminds me of myself at her age, except female, and we seem to understand each other very well, so I thought that perhaps the problem with the painting of Katie was (sorry, Katie) perhaps Katie herself. Maybe I needed to be working with a model I know well to space a painting's process out over multiple sessions.

But I was wrong. And I'm so disappointed now with the painting of Jen I'm embarrassed to even post this picture of it. I don't even know what the hell I was doing that day. Obviously paying attention was not it. I painted her so disproportionately it's not even salvageable. Garbage.

We have a session booked next week to finish this one, but I'm just going to start over. I've learnt my lesson: paint in the fucking moment, idiot.

So obviously there must have been a turning point, right? Some moment in which I realized what an idiot I really am? Yes. And I'm chagrined to admit that this moment actually occurred before any of these paintings were started- I was just too stupid to realize it.

This piece I painted a few weeks ago. It happens fairly often, especially with my more experimental abstracts, that while I may learn a neat trick or perfect a certain technique, that the painting itself, useful to me as it may be, essentially fails. These panels lay around the studio waiting to be painted over most of the time. The black, yellow and red you see here were all painted nearly three years ago. The panel went into my junk pile and sat there patiently until I pulled it out to experiment with a few new tools I've been trying out, and so I figured that it would be a perfect place to prove to myself that I can create a successful painting in layers, instead of always having to work in a pool of wet paint. I was so happy with it when it was done I totally neglected to realize that the reason it worked out so well was that I encapsulated a perfect moment, despite the underpainting, not because of it. It took the three failed paintings above for me to finally see what I'd done.

So last Friday, I got a message from Barmy Sansculotte. She and I worked together last summer when I was doing a lot of sketches, and had a great session. She's got a very unique body and very soulful eyes, and I loved the work I did that day, so I invited her back for another session a week or later, and she totally flaked on me. From certain previous posts, you may already be aware of how deeply that affects me. I pretty much wrote her off. This was last August, but since then, despite what happened, I've been looking periodically at the sketches I did that day, wishing I could just paint her.

I wrote to her a few weeks or a month ago, asking if she was still modeling and would she like to set something up. Her schedule and mine don't mesh well, so it was a little tough. But Friday she wrote to me to let me know she'd had Monday (yesterday) open up unexpectedly, and to ask if I'd be interested in painting her.

Of course, I jumped on the opportunity immediately. It sounds a little crazy, but Barmy has become something of an obsession for me. I can't quite explain it. I mean, there's the obvious fact that she's beautiful, but there's something more to it. Maybe it's how little she talks when she's modeling. I never know what she's thinking, so perhaps I feel the need to observe her more closely than normal to get at the heart of her. Or maybe it has to do with this feeling that it's totally worth the risk that she might cancel on me, because I know the work will be superb if she doesn't.

I knew that no matter what happened, I needed to get the painting I wanted of her finished in a single sitting. This was a moment I'd been hoping would come for quite awhile and I didn't dare screw it up.

She arrived promptly at 10am, and by 10:20 we were working. By 11:30 or so, I'd realized I'd totally fucked it up. I'd centered the composition on her breasts, and then tried to still squeeze her face and arm into the piece, which quite simply didn't work. It was a mess. I had until 1pm to salvage the piece, and was sort of freaking out. I wanted this painting so badly.

So I started over. The painting to the left here was completed by 12:45pm, so what you're seeing represents just over an hour of work, and about the closest I've ever come to capturing a perfect moment with a model. I didn't get her face down exactly right, but the moment? Perfect.

And then she went and did something amazing. We still had 15 minutes left in our session, so she asked me if I wanted to get any more work done. I told her that there really wasn't time to do anything but perhaps take some photographs, so she could consider the session over. But she sort of pressed further, like she really wanted me to photograph her. I tried to explain to her that while I've photographed many models over the years, I rarely if ever actually get a worthwhile painting from the pictures, due largely to the fact that everything I know about how to frame a shot I seem to have learnt from pornography, so while I might enjoy the pictures immensely in their own rite, I couldn't promise that they'd have any redeeming artistic qualities.

Basically, she laughed and told me to grab my camera, and then we proceeded to shoot photos for another half an hour. I told her I couldn't be trusted to direct, because I'd turn it into a softcore porn shoot, so she just went pose after pose through her repertoire. I think we could have gone on for quite a while longer if I hadn't had to leave for work. Below is one of my favourite shots from those final magical moments. It's funny how it's come full-circle. I finally convince myself that I've got to stop working from photographs, and create this wonderful painting, but now I want so badly to paint from those photos. If I'm smart, I suppose I'll just file it all away mentally and if she ever turns up for another session, paint her from life.

Maybe in the meantime though, I should work on sketches from these photos, so I can get her face right in the next painting. We'll see what happens. In the meantime though, I have a bunch of new failed paintings I need to paint over.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Lack of Focus: A Beauty and a Curse

One of the things I love best about painting is the way it allows me to lose myself in the work and wander through the creative process, stopping only when something beautiful has happened.  As I've gotten better at letting go of the everyday and sinking into the paint, I've gotten worse at maintaining any kind of real focus on my LIFE.

I keep putting off major decisions.  I'm terrible with money.  I keep ham-stringing myself.  I'm supposed to be saving up cash for this agent who a couple of months ago said she wants to represent me in high-end galleries, but instead I've been spending all my money on hiring models.  I'm supposed to be putting together a Kickstarter page so I can try to beg for the money for the agent, but instead I've been watching British TV. 

I haven't been posting here lately because I've been painting. My plan was to write a post with pictures of all I've done in the past couple of weeks, but of the 6 paintings I've started, only one is finished.  I wander through this life like in a dream, which makes the art beautiful, but if no one ever sees it in person who can afford to waste money on trivialities like ART, I'll be stuck working for other people for the money to survive for the rest of my life. 

This lack of focus is integral, necessary, absolutely required and yet keeps fucking me repeatedly.  Like some long, drawn-out, lazy psychic self-rape. 

Sometimes I write down lists of short-term and long-term goals, but then forget what they are when I lose the lists.

What was I writing about again?

Who am I?

Monday, May 9, 2011

How to Pronounce my Name.

My name is Jason Randolph Burrell.  I've never heard anyone mispronounce my first or middle names, but people constantly pronounce my last name incorrectly, and I just want to set the record straight.  Despite what the spelling would suggest, my last name has one syllable.  It sounds like "berl."  Not "burr-relle," or "beaurall".

Furthermore, I am also increasingly of the opinion that those Burrells out there in their thousands that pronounce it  "burr-relle" are the descendants of previous generations who, like my brother Jared, just gave up on correcting people.  This makes my job harder when people get it wrong.

I've had people try to correct ME.  Fuck you!  It's the name I was born with and I'll pronounce it the same way my father does (barring when he's on a Scottish accent kick, when he says it's more like "boottle").

Thank you.  Rant over.  Now I've got to hop in the shower, suck down some coffee, and get to the ATM and back before the lovely Ms. Katie Marie arrives for our painting session this morning.  And then to work.  I'm sick as a dog, but I'm out of sick days.  Yay.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A weekend so long it took until now to write this

*Whew!*  I am wiped the fuck out.  Wow.  What a weekend.  Maybe I'm getting old.

It all started Thursday night, when I went after work to see Beats Antique perform at The Middle East, which is about a block from my apartment.  These folks are by far my favourite musicians right now, and I was totally psyched when Meghan told me she'd bought tickets.  It was our friend Lisa's birthday and she was going to be there too, so it worked out really well.  Lisa is amazing at massaging the crowd into letting us move toward the stage, so by about the 4th song (in what was about a 100 minute set) we were standing immediately behind the people standing in front of the stage.  Zoe Jakes is amazing.  Robobellydancing virtuoso! We got out of there at about 2am, and for the first time this year, it wasn't freezing cold outside.  I wasn't even wearing a coat and despite being soaked in dance-sweat, it didn't matter.  Beats Antique rang in the Spring.  Sweet.

Friday I had to work, and I knew the weekend coming up was going to be brutal, so I took it easy when I got home and went to bed early, around 12am, still slightly hung over from the previous evening, and nervous about the talk I was supposed to give the following night.

Saturday morning I got up early and did a little cleaning before going out to get my hair cut.  That afternoon,  Jarvis had a soccer game.  I live in Cambridge, he lives way out in Hopkinton, and his game was in Framingham.  So for those of you not familiar with the local geography, that means it was about a 45 minute drive to his house, 30 minutes to the game, 30 minutes back and then 45 minutes home again.  Normally on a Saturday I'd bring him home with me instead of back to his mom's, but I had a show Saturday night that was going to run late and where there'd be drinking, so I didn't think it appropriate to bring him.

When I first got to their house, they had a little fire going in the yard burning sticks and leaves and so forth.  Jenn's not great at keeping a fire going. It was mostly just smoking and smouldering, choking on itself. So I fixed it.  After 7 or 8 years in the Boys Scouts, and of course just by virtue of all the time spent with my dad, I'm good at fire.  But it'd been awhile since I'd had an opportunity to work with one, and it was nice.  I taught Jarvis how to take tubes of Birch bark he was finding and stick them into the leeward side of the fire to create little smokestacks. In the meantime, I was getting the flame to smoke ratio back into a decent balance so that sucker could burn efficiently.

Then he and I went to his game.  It was nice.  I'm definitely the youngest dad at any of these games, so it's usually a little weird.  As the game was about to start, the referee (a cute but very serious girl of all of maybe 16) had the boys all tuck in their shirts and knock on their kneepads to make sure they had them.  One kid had one of those bracelets on like you get at the hospital or a nightclub, and she told him he needed to take it off.  For a 10 year old kid, this is pretty much impossible, so he ran off the field to his dad who happened to be standing next to me and asked for some help.  The kid's dad was having some difficulty and asked if anyone had a knife.  So I pulled out my scissors and offered them.  I've noticed it's always a little weird when people realize you're walking around with a pair of scissors in your pocket.  The guy thanked me and his kid ran back onto the field, and the next thing I know, I'm chatting with a couple of these guys for the next hour about airport security and fine dining in Boston and the weather. 

The Hopkinton team got crushed by Framingham 4-0.  As far as individual players' skill with the ball, the teams seemed about equally matched to me, but the Framingham kids were way more coordinated as a group, and seemed to have hand signals they used to communicate formations.  It was actually a little scary.  Like an army of 4th-graders.  Jarvis got nailed in the chest with the ball at some point and had to take a knee.  He'd gotten the wind knocked out of him and seemed a little scared of the ball for the rest of the game, but then, he always plays better on defense, and the coach had him playing forward this time.

After I dropped him off at home with his mom, I came back to Cambridge to pick up Meghan and go to give my talk at The G Studios.  The G Studios is in a sort of sketchy-looking section of Dorchester, but it's right off Mass Ave. and has tons of free street parking.  The space itself is amazing, and Gio, who runs the space, seems like a really nice guy and is definitely very enthusiastic and passionate about bringing art to the community on artists' terms.

I have to say, I was a little disappointed with the turnout.  There were only maybe 12 or 14 people there.  But I didn't properly promote the thing, so I guess I can't really complain if no one else did either.  Then again, there was a lot of stuff going on this weekend to keep people busy.

So the first band went on around 8:30 or 8:45 I think, because they were late, but they were pretty cool.  I can't remember their name, but they were a South American Reggae group, and let me tell you, as fun and upbeat as the the music was it was also very, very dark.  Meghan described it as Tim Burton meets the Beach Boys on Telemundo, and I had to agree.  They were awesome. 

After their set I gave my talk.  My plan was basically that I had no plan.  I knew that it would be totally boring for people if I spoke about my tools and techniques, so wanted instead to just tell a story, relevant to the work and under 10 minutes.  I had a couple of drinks before going on, and so I don't really remember exactly what I said, except that I swore a lot.  And I went way too long.  About 22 minutes, according to my buddy Duval, who videoed the whole thing.  But no one seemed bored.  I got a couple laughs.  A few people came up to me afterward and said they liked it.  So I guess it was at least ok.  Duval's digitizing the tape for me so I can watch it hopefully later this week and find out what I said.

Stroamata came up next, and they were good too.  Good old-fashioned rock and roll.  Guitar.  Bass. Drums. The singer was amazing, but the volume on her mic was too low.  You could tell she was really belting it out, but it was hard to hear her over the rest of the band.

During all of this, James Neville was doing a painting demonstration in a little alcove off the main performance space, next to the door leading out to the courtyard they have there.  He's started using the Larcoloid I recommended to him, and his work is progressing very well.

The last band to play Saturday night was ParanoidZen, who were by far my favourite of the evening. Two DJs, wicked bass-heavy and chill.  Sort of like Beats Antique with a morphine drip.  Earlier in the evening, I had sold Gio on the idea of doing my own painting demonstration, and I found myself hoping that despite the tiny crowd (?) I could convince the guys of ParanoidZen to come play when I do it.  I'll email them this week.  They were fucking incredible, and kept the party going until a little after 1am.

Sunday morning I left the house at 10am to go pick up Jarvis.  We came back to Cambridge and then hopped the Red Line up to Davis Square so we could catch the Somerville Open Studios Trolley.  We ate lunch first at Mike's and then took the trolley to Joy Street, where we saw the work of a ton of artists.  Jarvis especially liked Joo Young Choi's paintings.  So did I.  There's a depth of character to her work I find inspiring.  It's unfortunate she was the very first artist we saw actually, because she was definitely the best.

After Joy Street, we took the trolley to the Armory, mostly because my friend Jason's girlfriend Eva was showing some photographs there, but also because, well, I've always wanted to actually go in there.  I used to live literally right around the corner, but at the time, the armory, which is basically a castle, was all boarded up.  They have turned that place into a fantastic venue.  I'm not sure how I feel about the purple ceiling, but it's pretty cool in there.  There was this one woman with these wooden tops she'd made from recycled materials.  Jarvis and I both had fun spinning them for a few minutes, but by then, my legs were getting pretty tired.

It had been a long weekend.  So we took came back to Cambridge, picked up some organic mac and cheese, organic milk and non-organic broccoli at Harvest Market and came home to eat supper, which was good.  A ninety-minute round trip later, I'd brought him back to his mom and gotten back to my comfy chair here at home.  I think Meghan and I watched an episode of Fringe on Hulu before going to bed.  She'd been pretty sick all day and so she didn't come out with us, and I had to be up early on Monday morning, because I had a model scheduled.

I hadn't painted a drop in about two weeks, I think, when Jen showed up yesterday.  I love that she consistently arrives 10 minutes early for every session we do.  She's fantastic.  We sat and chatted for a bit and then settled in to get some work done.  While I was getting everything ready, I asked her if she'd be interested in a project I have coming up.  This was the idea I'd sold Gio on Saturday night over at G Studios.  Basically, what I'm going to do is set up my painting rig over on G Studios' stage (or right next to it), and have a model posing (probably on or near their piano- Gio came up with that idea and really likes it and so do I) for me to paint.  I'm going to set up a camera directly over my painting rig with a feed to a projector so people won't have to crowd around me to see what I'm doing.  While I'm painting, we'll have 3 to 5 bands play sets alongside us.

Jen agreed immediately, because she's awesome.  I had thought of her immediately when Gio agreed to the idea in the first place- she's prompt and reliable, sultry and emotive,  and can always find her way back to the pose.  I was thrilled she said she'd do it, because I know there's no doubt she will, and that therefore the demonstration will be awesome.

"Wide-Eyed" Jason Burrell, 2011
Acrylic on Birch Panel, 11" x 14"
One of the things I'd been thinking about since Saturday night was the fact that if I do a painting demonstration in which the whole point of the thing is to paint a picture of someone, then the painting had better look like the model.  This is a pretty obvious thing.  Anybody who attends this event is going to judge the work based on how well I capture Jen's likeness, as well they should.  The thing is, I'm still relatively new to this.  In fact, I've avoided working realistically for the most part for over a decade.  But now, I have to get serious.  If I want to paint people, they have to look like the people I'm painting.

So I got serious.  I broke out the smaller of the two birch panels I bought last week, and painted this picture to the left here.  I really love this painting.  It's a good likeness, first of all.  Check out Jen's site, and you'll see. Mostly though, I just love seeing so many techniques I've developed over the years coming together to create something so different from any of that work. Perhaps there is some magic in the birch.  I didn't achieve the depth of field I was aiming for here, but there's an emotional depth in Jen's eyes that I think carried over into the painting, and I love that. 

It's been a long fucking weekend, but I think it's all been totally worthwhile and rewarding.  Great art, beautiful music, my fantastic son, and a job well done.  Thank you, universe, for hearing my Birch bark smokestack prayers, even if I didn't mean it that way at the time.