moisture in painting

VanDyck, Cornelis van der Geest ante 1620Van Dyck, Cornelis van der Geest, National Gallery, London, circa 1615.

(Click on photo to see higher resolution)

This painting, by Van Dyck, is one of my favorite paintings in existence.  Before you moan and lament the ruff he is wearing (I agree, it is awful), look at the eyes of this man.  I could gush out endless superlatives, but suffice to say that I believe they are the greatest eyes ever painted.  They seem so alive, so filled with the human spirit, that we no longer think in terms of paint and linen, but of the very soul of the sitter.

The following material I am presenting is not anything I have cleverly observed or devised in painting.  In fact, it has all been taught to me by Charles Cecil, the head of my school in Florence.  How did Van Dyck create such breathtaking eyes.  There are pages and pages of technical considerations that could be written- Van Dyck blurred what was inconsequential and/or fleshy, he set up the model just perfectly so that the light fell on both Cornelius' eyes and underlids.  But, above all, it is the moisture of the eyes that give them life.

And how does one paint moisture in eyes?  Well in the first blog, I promised the reader I wouldn't launch into lengthy diatribes concerning technical aspects of painting, such as lead white, etc.  But it is precisely the lead white highlights in the eyes that create that sense of moisture, in this case the watery eyes of an older man.

Portrait of Cornelius van der Geest by Van Dyck, eyes

To begin,  Van Dyck rendered the eyes in soft focus, with no sharp (photorealistic) delineation between the iris and the cornea, no harsh lines for flesh as soft as eyelids.  And then, with a blob of lead white paint, he placed impastos on the eye in just the right spots.  Successful impastos such as these are usually raised off the canvas quite far, with absolutely no blending involved.  There is no blending, no blurring, but rather the highlight is left in very sharp focus.  And why?  Because anything that is moist creates a sharp highlight.

Here are some of my paintings of eyes, all of which owe a great debt to Van Dyck, and to my teachers who pointed out this important lesson.  Hopefully, some obliging older person with watery eyes can sit for me soon (it's so funny to write that sentence.)

matteo eyepablaeyes

hurler eyesrobertofinal2

the color of beer

fiddler's elbow

Maybe I should have been a brewmaster or something, because "I just want to pick up that beer and drink it" is one of the most flattering compliments that anyone can say about my painting.  I have heard this response from hundreds of people that have viewed this painting, and their response never gets old for me.

What is it about this beer that makes it particularly drinkable?  It's the color, the golden light flowing through the beer, shimmering on the page.  In this painting, the yellow sings.  How does the yellow capture attention?  It is because all of the color around it is quiet.  This is one of the most important realizations I have ever had in painting- singing at the top of your lungs is much more effective in a quiet room than in the middle of a mosh pit.

I've been shown scientific diagrams, charts, essays that establish "scientific" rules of color- in order to make yellow resonate, you place it next to its compliment, purple.  In order to make green sing, you place it beside red.  The impressionists successfully used these scientific principles of color to create color harmonies that were never seen before.  Monet was just as preoccupied with scientific treatises on the optical physics of light as he was obsessed with green lily pads.

But, I'm not an impressionist.

While I enjoy impressionism, I am just not as, umm, happy as they are.  I just don't like that much sweet harmony.  I like honey in my tea, but I don't really enjoy squeezing the bottle directly into my mouth.  Sorry Renoir.

My temperament agrees with a quieter color palette- soft, quiet gradations of white and black, into which are woven dull greens and browns.  And then, one sudden burst of yellow.  For this painting, I actually squeezed yellow paint straight from the tube onto the canvas.

Isn't that more like life though?  Are we always blissfully happy, strolling through Elysian Fields?  Not me.  On a day to day basis, I find life to be quiet and none too exciting- I am fine with this, I accept the mundane days.  In painting, these insignificant days would be the soft, quiet greens, the subtle ochres, the gentle greys.  At times, life is nothing but pain and heartache, dark periods in which we are unable to see, to understand- which would be black.  Sometimes, life is unmixed joy that is unaware of anything but its own bliss.  That would be a rich impasto of yellow paint.

In order for there to be bliss, which is always shortlived, you have to have it surrounded by a lot of nothing, really.  In order for there to be a singing yellow, I have to have it surrounded by an quiet sea of black, white, and green.  And that's why I'm not an impressionist- I don't deny the fact that life is painful, nor do I try and assert that heaven is on earth.  It's not.  But I'm here, and I find contentment is accepting the full range of color and experiences, from resonant blacks to blissful yellows, and all of the muddy browns and greens in between.

Nature rarer uses yellow

Than another hue;

Saves she all of that for sunsets,-

Prodigal of blue


Spending scarlet like a woman,

Yellow she affords

Only scantly and selectly,

Like a lover's words.

-Emily Dickinson


the vatican, el prado, medici chapel

These are some studies, quick sketches that I did while in Rome, Madrid, and Florence.  I would just stand in the middle of the museum, in front of the painting, and begin drawing.  I think that there are hundreds of digital photos of me drawing, taken by curious Japanese tourists, giddy Spanish teenagers, swooning Americans.  Whenever people spoke to me, I always pretended I didn't speak their language so that I could concentrate.  Sometimes my cover would get blown, and somebody would ask me a question in Spanish, I would reply in English, and then they would proceed to speak both fluently.  I have more sketches, though I think this is enough for now.  The only thing I have to say is that paper makes all the difference- this handmade paper from Amatruda,  a mill in Amalfi, is absolutely beautiful.  It is incomparable; the cotton rag surface is so similar to the weave of a canvas.

Enough talking.

By dragging the icon over and clicking on each image, you can walk through some of the museum rooms, and zoom into some paintings, see clips of others.

Pinacoteca Gallery, Vatican

vatican sketchesRaphael's Transfiguration, Da Vinci's St. Jerome, and Caravaggio's Deposition from the Cross

raphael transfiguration lone figureRaphel, Transfiguration

raphael transfigurationRaphel, Transfiguration

da vinci st jeromeDa Vinci, Saint Jerome

caravaggio depositionCaravaggio, Deposition from the Cross

El Prado, Madrid

argus zoom 2

Velazquez, Mercury and Argusargus 2Velazquez, Mercury and Arguslas meninas 2Velazquez, Las Meninas

las meninas zoom 1Velazquez, Las Meninas

Medici Chapel, La Chiesa di San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy

dusk michelangeloMichelangelo, Dusk

the muse

the muse

This is a painting that I have been particularly reluctant to talk about, because I am always afraid of bastardizing a visual medium with lofty verbiage.  I am so fed up with artists putting literary meat on the emaciated frame of their work- if it's wanting to be fleshed out, maybe I should paint better.  But, I have to be fair to the reader of this blog, in that I promised to be honest, thorough, and candid in describing my life and works.

Isaac Stern, the great violinist, writes the following in his memoirs:

"I remember taking the train to play a concert somewhere in Oregon or British Columbia.  I entered the dining car and saw an incredibly beautiful woman, with whom I fell instantly in love.  She wore slacks and a sweater, out of which rose an exquisite, unbelievable, swan-like neck.  She had big black eyes and was sitting demurely, eating breakfast.  She looked like nothing I had ever seen before in my life.  It was Vivien Leigh.  I didn't dare speak to her.  I never saw her in person again."

I guess that I did this painting as a sort of question, wondering what it feels like to be a Vivien Leigh.  I don't know that Vivien liked having a snot nosed kid with a violin standing and staring at her, slack-jawed, for a few minutes.  It must be both flattering and annoying.  What is it like to be the epitome of something?  To be the most beautiful?  To be the best downhill skier, to be the most feared drug dealer, to be the richest coffee plantation owner in Nicaragua, to be Kurt Cobain?

I don't often transgress into the realm of philosophy, but here I go:  this is a Platonic painting.  I've painted an essence, a pure and eternal form, in this case beauty, embodied.  This essence is looking at a pleasing emulation of itself, a realized form.  And the form returns the look, and contemplates the essence.  It's a circular observation of oneself, an inward reflecting.  If you happen to be that essence, and people are sculpting you, what do you think about that sculpture?  What do you think about being sculpted?  What does that sculpted form think about you?  Would you prefer to be, um, unsculptable?  Would you like to be un-essenced?  Would you prefer to not be Vivien Leigh, so that you could eat your breakfast in peace?  Or, do you like having your most mundane activities admired by a host of marvelers?

Incidentally, my wife posed for this painting.  She was beautiful.  I painted this over the course of a week, and all the while I wondered, worried, if it at all bothered her to be painted.  Here Margaret is in a foreign country, baby running around the studio (hard to get a baby sitter for Liam in Italy), leaning up against a wall, staying absolutely still, trying to stay warm in a thin cotton dress (it was winter.)  My wife graduated suma cum laude from her university, she was the head of clubs and honor societies, played in orchestras, and here she is being valued as... an object?  There are portraits and paintings of Margaret all over Europe, she had a waiting list of artists.  Paintings of Margaret range from innumerable, awful studies by students, to several breathtaking paintings which, while still on the easel, were sold to high paying collectors from Munich, Florence, and London.  And Margaret kept on posing, just to earn us some money as I studied painting.

As the hours wore on and we artists worked away, I wondered what it was like to be painted.



Beverly, oil on canvas

Beverly would walk into a room, and turn the heads of both men and women.  She had an arresting grace, a grace which is attributed not only to looks, but to a particular manner, a way of carrying oneself.  She often wore fur, smoked on break, loved wine, drank too much coffee.  She was so elegant, her very movements looked choreographed.

She grew up in a working class, industrial area of London, not to say that she had a rough neighborhood or upbringing.  She just knew a more authentic side of that polished, touristic city.  She went on to study classical ballet for several years in France, and then performed across Europe.  Afterwards, she went back to London to work (at what job I am unsure) in the House of Lords.  Her last job in London was working as an office manager for a finance company.

I don't know whether she was fleeing London, or going to Florence.  At any rate, she fit perfectly in to Florence, and soon called it home.

For a long time I considered this portrait a bit of a failure, because it seemed too intense.  In my opinion, the portrait was so riveting that it lacked, umm, wall appeal?  I felt almost apologetic for this, and so I leaned the painting up against the wall of my studio in New York.

Yesterday, I sorted through the dusty racks of forgotten paintings in my studio.  I stumbled across Beverly, and had a complete change in my opinion.  I think too much about "hangability" or "wall appeal."  There is a current trend among some modern painters to depict diaphonously dressed delilahs in dreamy dalliance, leaning languidly against cashmere cushions.  Truthfully, I admire some of these works, and so I struggle with a pervading sense of failure that I can't produce work of that type.  But, it's not meant to be.  This is Beverly, with the industrial streets of London and French Ballet chamber halls written on her face.

ummm, a different portrait commission

This painting commission was, umm, a bit bizarre.  Believe it or not, the couple that commissioned it asked me to do a painting of their daughter within a painting, with the artist being a monkey.  The couple commissioning the work are really fun, and I've gotten such mixed reviews on this piece.  I loved painting this piece.  If, in my body of work I had to categorize this piece, it would be "most lighthearted."  I don't know how much the girl liked it (she asked to be painted on the landing of a double grand balustrade, in a flowing black dress), but the parents loved it.

Is this "Fine Art"?  Illustration?  Brilliant use of imagination?  Weird?  I tweaked perspective, flattening some space and brought depth to other areas.  Are there real people in the background, or is that a tapestry?  I have no clue myself.  Color harmonies are blatantly violated, the paint on the palette actually is blobs of paint that are about one inch off of the canvas.  There are dozens of references to artists of the past, you could probably spend the better part of a day finding them all.  There is actually one painting reference in which the artist I copied had himself copied another artist.  Egad, triple quoting.  Should you be so inclined to find these hidden things, good luck.






local landscapes


whitecap crop

I don't often do landscapes, I'm just not drawn to paint green trees and blue skies.  It's just not that interesting to me, in a painterly sense.  But, sometimes I will come across buildings that fascinate me, and just today I've figured out what it is that grabs my eye.  I love the idea of a really rich, resonant dark pitted against a very bright light.  This doesn't often occur outdoors.  These two paintings show two instances, one in Italy, the other in Islip, New York, in which there is this sense of an outdoor room, and light streaming into this dark room through a doorway.  Nothing too fascinating here, no metaphors or anything.


genesis 3-19

Spackle, 18" x 24", oil on linen

My family has been spackling since the Paleolithic Age.  My great-great- etc. uncle Seamus was actually called in from Ireland to prepare the walls for the Lascaux cave paintings in France.  I might have some of those details wrong.

My grandfather spackled when he got off the boat in 1953 from Ireland, my dad spackled, my brothers and I spackled.  We have it in our blood- no really, we have it in our blood.  I can't tell you how many times I cut myself, only to stick my hand in spackle and find that the plaster nicely aided and accelerated the coagulatory process.  It's in our lungs, from all the sanding, it's in our nostrils- okay, you get the point.

I didn't mind doing the actual spackling, it wasn't so bad.  It was incredibly difficult, laborious work, the kind that leaves you physically exhausted at the end of the day.  Sanding was awful, it would leave us looking like we'd been in some strange blizzard.  People could be cruel at times, like the one woman in Center Moriches who leaned a ladder up to her second story window, and asked us to use the ladder instead of walking up her stairs.  Up a long ladder, we had to carry loads of 4 x 8 foot sheetrock, as well as 65 pound pails.   Then, we'd drop it through a tiny window, then drop ourselves through the window.  When I drive through Center Moriches, south of Montauk Highway, I always remember that behind one of those nice picket fences lives one of the meanest people on earth.   Also, people could be kind and buy you breakfast and lunch, engage you in wonderful conversation, bring you homemade beer.  Honestly, those types were very rare.  As I spackled, all I thought of all day long was how badly I wanted to paint people, things.  I would look out the window of some huge mansion in Mill Neck, and long to paint the view of the bay I was seeing.   I would do drawings on pieces of sheetrock.  And so I immersed myself in oil painting, and spackling ended suddenly.

I don't know why I did this painting.  Perhaps it is because, truthfully, there was a lot I liked about spackling.  Working on a scaffold with my brothers, driving along an empty road at dawn, knowing where all of the best deli's on Long Island are, spending time with my dad.  Perhaps I did this painting because I struggle with a distinctly American complex, that I am Adam.  I'm afraid to be the first of my kind, the only of my kind, and consequently become rootless, spinning, with no connection to those around and before me.  Perhaps spackling was, for me, belonging to a something.  I am pretty sure that something is my dad and brothers.  Though we're all closer than we've ever been, we're also phasing out of spackling, and heading off in our own directions.  I would guess that we are all sad to see the, umm, err, glue of spackling coming undone.


liamLiam, 9" x 12", graphite on handmade Amatruda paper

This drawing is of my son Liam, when he was four months old and still in Margaret's womb.  When we were living in Italy, we found out that Margaret was pregnant.  It was a complete surprise.  When we went in for a sonogram, there was that usual static, black and white, two dimensional image.  Suddenly, the doctor flipped a switch on the sonogram, and on a computer screen I could suddenly see my little baby in three dimensions, moving, even smiling.  It was one of the most surreal moments of my life.  It's no use recounting the emotions I experienced, because I would just bore you with superlatives.  I quickly asked the doctor if he could print the images I was seeing.  Five minutes later, I had an image of my baby.  Five hours later, I finished a drawing from that print.  Here's Liam, with his characteristically huge hands and particular half smile (still the same two years later.)

liam zoom

kate's eyes

kates eyes Kate, 18" x 24", oil on linen

This is a close up of the first oil portrait that I ever painted. This was the most agonizing, delightful painting experience I have ever had.  I sank to the depths of despair when things went wrong, I rose to heights of orgasmic, painterly ecstasy when things went well.  Poor Margaret, being married to an artist.

Kate was a playwright, actress, nomad from London who had moved to Florence on a whim.  She had no money, hence was modeling.  She had permanently borrowed an obliging bike that was reclining against a wall, and would meander through the city and surrounding hills.  She kept a bag with her at all times, in which were a few books and a box of loose tea.

Kate's eyes, in this painting, mean so much to me.  Something happened to me when I painted these eyes, something which would allow me to call painting my own, put it in my back pocket, and walk away.  I was painting the eyes over and over again, not getting them right, not capturing the light in the iris, not capturing the soul of this fascinating girl, Kate.  Things perpetually went wrong with this painting.  It was my first portrait painting ever, and I was receiving many cues that painting was forever a closed door to me, a sword in a stone.   What's the use of painting if I couldn't capture her eyes?  Why did I cross the ocean with my wife, enroll in this studio... why was I painting this girl in 105 degree heat?  I wiped the eyes off with a rag, I mixed more paint, I manipulated the paint with turpentine, added medium- the paint would not do what I told it to.  I used tacky, dry paint, I used wet, slippery paint.  Infuriating.  I was just about to give up.  Without thinking, I grabbed a knife off of a nearby shelf, and dashed towards the work.  The problem I was having was with the iris of the eyes, so I took the knife and... scratched the inside of the iris with the knife.  Instead of painting with paint, I was carving light into the canvas by returning to the white ground of the linen.  I stepped back and suddenly, there it was.  A something which cannot be painted.

So much of art is not understood, it is felt.  Kate's eyes are this "felt" for me.  I don't know how to tell people to paint eyes, because I don't know what it might take to paint an eye.  For many of my portraits, I now scratch the irises with a knife.  But I don't always use a knife, only when it feels right.  Robert Frost would often refer to something called the "sound of sense," that something in poetry which transcends the reasoning part of the beast.  The epiphany is not the knife, the epiphany is paying attention to the felt, whatever that might entail.