Category: Paintings

The landscape starts taking shape.

I’m having a great time painting the landscape behind the hanged man, which has populated itself with buildings and trees, and mountains that resemble the ones I see around me here at the edge of the Malibu range. I love the way these mountains stack up, fading layer by layer as they fall away into the distance. In the background behind the man’s elbow on the right hand side I’ve included a view of a strange looking hill that I drive past pretty regularly which always reminds me of a couple of places in England that I know pretty well: first Silbury Hill, which is a man made hill near Avebury that has been a feature of Wiltshire’s landscape for three thousand years; and second Glastonbury Tor, which I have climbed several times and love for its mysterious tower and legendary past as the church that Joseph of Arimathea founded a couple of thousand years ago when he brought the holy grail to England.

I’m using Raw Umber to sketch the landscape, pretty thin with ragged areas to lighten the paint and make gestures suggesting shadows in the dipping and rising waves of the hills and valleys. I painted the lowest part of the sky in a lead white to bring some brightness into the horizon. This will surely change later as I feel out the appearance of the sky, which I want to become quite dramatic.

Hanged Man taking shape.

It’s been a busy week introducing new students to their classes and getting everything in order. We’ve been experimenting with the camera obscura to see what kind of results we can get out of it, finding that having some theatre lights aimed at the model really helps to create a stronger image. Joe wants to put together a research project in the summer to build a box like the one Vermeer used in his studio. I’d like to see that very much.

I’ve found some time to paint, despite being so busy, getting a bit further with the Hanged man, producing a roughed head and arm to add to the body. He’s coming along nicely, and will be quite dramatic when he’s done. He’s led to some really interesting research into Medieval North Italian legal practices. I’m thoroughly enjoying writing about him and the other cards that I’m exploring. My book is now a tad under 50,000 words.

Because the image illustrates the punishment for treachery I want to find symbolism that emphasizes the hanged man’s lost fidelity. Watch the blog to see how it emerges.

Traveler, trimmed at the top. Perhaps I'll take another couple of inches from the bottom.

Magician trimmed at the top and bottom. Much better!

After a few days of humming and hahing I’ve committed to editing the Traveler and Magician paintings from their earlier square composition. Now rectangles, the compositions look much better balanced, with the focus of attention moving down to the sun and the hand and face of the Traveler, while in the Magician the relationship of the sky to the land feels more compressed and dramatic. I’m looking forward to building the stretcher bars for these paintings now that I feel more certain of their shape.

We’ve rigged up a camera obscura in the studio. It makes beautiful softly focused images appear magically in the darkened room. I love the shallow focal length – it makes very specific areas of the image very crisp, but these quickly drop off into gently diffused areas of softness.

There’s a lot going on this week. Tomorrow I’m going to Ventura College to see an opening of figurative art, titled “Skin Deep: Artists Examine the Nude” including some work by John Nava, whose fabulous paintings were rendered as tapestries in the Los Angeles Cathedral. I’m looking forward to meeting him very much.

I’ll be at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Saturday at the Los Angeles Fine Art Show: Historic and Traditional, when I’m serving on a panel discussion titled Realism Today – Old Methods, New Visions

Saturday afternoon, January 21, 2012.  3.00-4.15 pm

Panelists [in alphabetical order]

  • Adrian Gottlieb, artist and atelier director
  • Michael Pearce, artist and chair of the art department at California Lutheran University
  • Kate Sammons, artist
  • Michael Zakian, art historian and director of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University


Peter Trippi, editor of Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine

I’ve started work on the Hanged Man, painting a first layer of Raw Umber to start defining the figure. I’m particularly happy to see the foreshortening of the figure working well.

Pitture infamanti were part of a tradition that was designed to cause humiliation to its target by displaying in public the shame of the person who had offended the authorities, ideally ruining their reputation. Public humiliation was an established form of punishment in North Italian cities for people who had offended public morality, including the practices of stripping the victim naked and chaining him to a post in the town square, wearing a paper pointed hat with his crimes written upon it. Other punishments included degrading the victim by making him ride a donkey backwards, holding its tail, or being forced to kiss the bottom of a pig.

If criminals had escaped the city, punishment became tricky – how was justice to be done? For debtors and traitors who had fled the answer was that paintings of them were commissioned to humiliate them in their absence, revealing their shame to the people. There are numerous records of the commission of such works, which were displayed in cities all over North Italy, but none have survived to the present because they were placed outside in the crowded plazas and market places, where both the weathering of the elements and the damage inflicted upon them by stone-throwing enemies took their toll upon the paint. In addition changes in government sometimes made them obsolete as last week’s enemy became this week’s friend, in which case they could suddenly become embarrassing and were quickly disposed of.

The Empress is getting closer to completion

Donna Granata visited the studio yesterday to shoot the portrait photos for the Focus on the Masters archive that I mentioned a couple of days ago. I enjoyed her company very much, she’s great fun to chat with. I’m looking forward to seeing what the pictures look like; she’s going to show the portrait in a show pretty soon. I’ll post details when I have them. Most of the time I got to paint while she shot pictures, although we did a more formal set-up as well.

I’ve altered the sides of the Empress and painted the new edges white so that I can see what the composition will look like when it’s stretched to size. It’s very satisfying to get this painting on the right road and I’m considerably happier with the new composition, which has made a big difference. I’m close to finishing the work of painting the vines of the bottom left and right, and I glazed the top of the sky with Ceramic White because I felt that it was too strong, detracting from the foreground by pulling focus upward.

The quest for foliage continues, and I’ve been adding dark shadows into the foliage on the right side of the painting, building substance and getting further away from the very decorative leaves that were there before. In the photo you can see where the new edge of the painting is (regular visitors will remember I snapped a bright orange chalk line so that I could see what the new boundary was) because the thinly painted and linear work on the right contrast sharply with the dark leaves I’ve added in the last week.

We’ve also been busy getting the studio ready (read “cleaned up”) for Donna Granata to come over tomorrow to shoot photos for her impressive portfolio of portraits of artists. She runs an organization called Focus on the Masters which documents the lives and work of artists who live in Ventura County. Once the portrait is made it will be part of her traveling exhibit of photographs and also accompany an television interview that will make part of a file about my work that will be available to historians and researchers in the future. I’ll post a link when they’ve put my file on the web.

This weekend a beautiful exhibit opens at the Weisman Museum in Malibu. Strongly recommended!

The Epic and the Exotic: 19th-century Academic Realism from the Dahesh Museum of Art, which will be at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University from January 14 through April 1, 2012.  Opening reception is Saturday, Jan 14, 5-7 pm.

Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art
Pepperdine University
24255 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA 90263

After a year or so of looking at the the giant mural of the virtues and thinking to myself, “Wow, I should probably do some painting on that…”, I’m officially calling it quits on the thing and painting it over with at  least three other paintings. I can use the blue skies in these other works if I’m careful about it, so the materials won’t be lost, but the virtues project just doesn’t excite me any more. So, on with the Hanged Man, who is taking shape in the middle of the wall.

I’ve changed my mind about the height, because of the impracticality of a twenty foot high painting. I’d LOVE to make a giant painting like that, but it’s going to have to wait until someone commissions it. The new canvas for the Hanged Man will be ten feet high and five wide, a good sized piece of work with the figure receding from a life sized head to a much smaller foot as the body dramatically extends up and away from the viewer. It’s a big mess of Foundation White over blue and white background right now, establishing the rough shape of the figure as he hangs suspended from a rope by one ankle, reaching down toward the ground in his efforts to reach a ring.

I’ll need to research oak trees this time, looking carefully at their leaves and branches because the rope will be lashed to a sturdy branch at the top of the canvas.

This was the most nerve-racking but fastest photo shoot I’ve done so far, but I think we laughed more than most of the other shoots too. It was very straightforward in essence, just one model (Aaron again, except he’s lost twenty pounds and looks completely different compared to when he posed for the Emperor in the Empire painting) and simple lighting using the shade of natural sunlight.

In this painting the figure has to hang upside down from one foot, so figuring out how to suspend Aaron was a bit worrying, because this was actually used as a method of execution in late medieval north Italy. But people regularly hang upside down in the gym and do crunches to strengthen their stomach muscles, wearing gravity boots that strap around their ankles and can be hooked over a bar, so I borrowed a pair from my friend Antony and we explored potential places that might be high and strong enough to support Aaron’s weight. After a few false starts in locations that we didn’t like because they weren’t safe or the light was no good (stadium bleachers, trees, a swing set), we decided on an outdoor staircase railing that was the perfect height and nicely shaded, and we were in business. Aaron regularly does upside down sit ups as part of his training for waterpolo, so we were confident that he could hang for a minute or so, and I quickly shot a lot of photos while he twisted and turned. My son Ethan helped to get him unhooked and we were done.

Looking at the pictures later was very satisfying – they’ve turned out very well. I have to be thoughtful about the height of the head in the painting so that the point of view of anyone looking at the painting is in the correct place, I want to make sure that the painting will look right if it’s hung two feet above the ground. The canvas will be very tall – about twenty feet high – so I’m looking forward to painting a lot of sky, while the landscape will be fairly small, filling only the bottom of the painting. I’ll paint the figure well above the landscape to increase the sense of height in the composition. There’s going to be lots of foreshortening too.

After shooting the photos I got back to work on the foliage in the Empress painting which is looking much more substantial after a couple of days of work. Re-doing the floor has made a big difference to it, and the leaves are looking much better. I re-painted the girls’ hair and added deeper shadows to the faces and some of the bodies, but I want to rework the flesh generally once I get through the leaves. I like the idea of adding some debris to the floor to make it look more convincing. Outdoor floors usually seem to have leaves or sticks or something scattered around them here and there. Detail!

The darker floor makes the space more convincing.

New creeper leaves drafted in Foundation White. It's already much more complex. I've painted only to the new edge of the left side of the work.

The orange line shows where the new edge of the painting is going to be.

















I’m letting the Empire painting rest for a little while so I can look at the piece again with a fresh eye in a couple of weeks, so I’ve moved to the old Empress painting. I’ve had this piece leaning against the studio wall for several months, waiting for a chance to change it. I’ve never been satisfied with it for numerous reasons, which I think I know how to fix now that I’ve had a long time to look at it and really figure out what bothers me about it.

In no particular order:

First: because of the square composition and the symmetry of the courtyard the girls are standing in the painting lacks flow and doesn’t invite a visual journey around the world within it, so I spent a while figuring out how to re-shape the canvas so that there is less symmetry, snapping a chalk line down the right side, cutting eight inches or so, then reducing the size of the pillar on the left, which occupies too much space on the edge of the canvas. If you look closely you’ll see orange chalk-lines that show how I plan to re-stretch the canvas onto stretcher bars.

Second: I HATE the extended feet of the girl who’s lying down, and these are definitely going to need a re-paint, which I’ll get to next week.

Third: I want to repaint all of the girls. Although the face of the girl who’s lying down is pretty, its not sitting on the body properly and needs to be repainted; then the others need to be fixed up, and the clothes need to get lighter and looser. Everything is too decorative right now – it needs to be more painterly.

Fourth: the marble is way too bright and lacks depth, the landscape needs to be worked on so that there’s more space in it, so I deepened the shadows on the floor, making the space feel dirtier and giving the girls somewhere to stand. I also darkened the shadows on the walls on the left of the painting so that there’s more light moving through the space. I’ll continue with this later.

Fifth: I couldn’t stand looking at the facile vines I decorated the sides of the painting with. These have got to become much richer and more convincing. The decorative idea was nice, but it’s not the direction I want the paintings to go in. I need these paintings to belong to the same world.

Rough texture over the vines that are coming closest to the viewer

Green grass and orange flowers. Building up the foreground of the painting.


I’ve been pretty busy in the studio, painting the foreground grass and working on detail on the vines. The foreground vines are much rougher and more textured now, which makes them feel like they’re coming forward.

I added some Cobalt blue into the shadows around the flowers, scraping it on with a knife, then scraped a touch of Cadmium red over the buds, using a rag to control the paint. The flowers were lightly glazed with a Transparent Iron Oxide Orange, then the white bits were wiped off, then additional orange oxide painted into the dark parts of the flowers.

My easel broke again. I’ll have to get the sled off again and figure out how to reinforce it with some steel, or something. Alternatively I suppose I could just paint much smaller paintings…

It’s seriously quiet in the studio because all my students are away on their Christmas break. I play lots of loud music when it’s like this, but lose track of the time regularly.