For the past month I've been working on an all-new series of landscapes -- oil paintings of the beautiful saltwater marshes of the Low Country in South Carolina where I spend about five months of my year, on Kiawah Island. I have long loved this landscape but wasn't sure how to approach it. A workshop with Charleston-based artist Chris Groves changed all that. Chris introduced us to cold wax medium and gave us lots of insights into abstracting the landscape. It was the jumpstart I needed!
It is amazing, but something I've experienced several times over the course of my painting career -- that a switch to a new medium can make an enormous difference. From the moment I started working with cold wax, I felt it was right for me and would enable me to work with the salt marsh landscapes I love so much. Cold wax is a dense, creamy, luscious medium that you mix with oil paint just as you would mix other mediums like linseed oil. The paint goes on thick and smooth. It sits in a different way. You may use all kinds of tools with it to great effect -- squeegees, palette knifes, brayers, to name a few. Painting with cold wax is especially interesting if you paint with many layers as I do; scraping back through layers is always interesting, but the effects that come out of doing this with cold wax are different from what I am used to with other media, and always surprising.
This series has generated works on every point of the representational to non-representational abstract range. I began with small, quick, nonrepresentational pieces where the focus was on getting my colors right. With my palette established I would work from my studies and photos to make a more developed and representational piece. Here is an example of a color study and the painting that came next. It is based on a view from a marsh tower that I visit often, with treetops in the foreground and the marshes beyond.
As the series progressed I was able to add more loose gestural strokes of paint, and personal motifs from my library of visual symbols and marks. For example in this one, I thought the view alone was a bit boring and unsatisfying, so I put a hawk in the tree. This bird is based on the image of a hawk that I saw in a collage by Romare Bearden who is one of my biggest influences. Whenever I have an opportunity to bring Bearden into a painting in some way I leap on it. The hawk is right at home in the painting below because there are many hawks in the salt marshes on Kiawah Island. You may wonder about the white marks in the sky which could be clouds, but if so aren't they strange? These marks, though suggestive of clouds, are also some of my "standard" gestural marks, part of my visual vocabulary as artists like to say. For me these marks suggest the back-and-forth movement of a pendulum on a clock. So, with these strokes of paint, I was able to inject into this painting a sense of the passage of time. It is a theme that was also important to Romare Bearden; he painted from present experience combined with memories and said that in doing this an artist becomes "an enchanter of time." Perfectly said!
Here are a couple of others that I did, moving more and more into my personal way of working. In the first below, I was able to loosen up and access a very gestural way of working with that sky. This felt good -- like I was moving beyond learning a new technique for painting the landscape and was beginning to make it my own, in a way that feels comfortable and authentic for me; it's a bit like that moment when you feel you are becoming not just knowledgeable of a new language, but fluent. In the second painting below, I continued this move toward my own voice with lots of gestural paint application and the addition of an invented sun.
Having done several representational things like the above, I wanted to see what would happen if I pushed these into nonrepresentational abstraction. The first things that came out were small minimalistic pieces that are just a few marks interwoven with a variety of paint applications, with squeegees, palette knives and other such tools. These are coming right out of the representational pieces. They are the same palette and they are the same kinds of marks used to make the representational works. But there is no effort to depict a marsh scene. For these, it is all about applying the paint and letting it sit as a pleasing collection of marks, not a picture of anything recognizable.
Later abstractions are more layered and developed, but they proceed in the same way. I make the marks that are inspired by marsh scenes -- horizontal marks that might be a distant island in the marsh, verticals that might be trees or the supports of a dock, or a boat mast in the distance, and series of marks that might be a boardwalk or staggered pools of water out in the marsh. These marks build up and sometimes mass together as shapes. I never know where it is going or where it will end up. And the end product is open to endless interpretations. The piece below has been through about 4 painting sessions with about that many layers, maybe more. The final dark layer of marks was derived from looking at the dark areas within a previous developed representational landscape of a marsh scene. It organized the chaos to a degree and might have been the final version of this piece. In fact, I thought it was finished. I even posted it on Instagram and lots of people loved it. Still, two days later I picked it back up and knew right away it was calling for more!
Here is where the above piece went after two more sessions. And I am still not sure it is done. In fact, I'm pretty sure it is not done. But I'm going to look at this work in progress for a bit and see what it's trying to tell me.
It's a crazy ride, but the only way I know to arrive at the new imagery I am seeking. Just dive in and keep painting until you get there -- and don't fret that you don't even know where you are trying to go! Richard Diebenkorn put it more eloquently: "I can never accomplish what I want – only what I would have wanted had I thought of it beforehand."
These pieces and many more marsh inspired paintings will all be available soon in my new online shop. In the the meantime you may email me if interested in buying one: firstname.lastname@example.org. All are oil on board. They range from 8x10 to 18x18, and the prices are $300 to $800.