Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rainy Weekend / My large-abstract process

Got a request from wonderful knife-painter Leslie Saeta to describe the process I use in making these large knife-painted abstracts, like this one here (Rainy Weekend, 36" x 36") and like the two Suspensions posted here recently. I had "warned" her that what I do is so simple as to seem almost ridiculous...there's no secret to them. It's like, if I tell you how "easy" these are to do, will you all still respect me in the next post? ;)

After making the canvas (and boy, would I love an assistant or two to do that for me...along with cleaning my brushes! What say we reinstate the old apprentice system?), I put on an imprimatura with a little paint and a lot of turps. This is of course optional.

First layer (after the imprimatura has dried at least a few hours or overnight): I squeeze a bunch of paint out (large quantity but for me only 2 or 3 diff.colors, plus white sometimes) and trowel it on all over the canvas, fairly thinly. Wait at least a week 'till it's touch-dry.

Second layer: do the same thing as the first layer, except leave a few little areas or lines or whatever shapes you want uncovered (i.e. the first layer shows through). Colors can be related to the first colors, or totally different, or whatever you want in your painting. Second layer is a bit thicker than the first.

Third layer: same as the second layer. Again, some bits of the second layer are left to show through in the third. This is usually the layer I really start seeing a pattern/composition forming. Sometimes it happens in the second layer but not often. Third layer is a bit thicker than the second.

Fourth layer etc.: just keep doing the same thing, allowing either a lot or a little of the previous layer to show through. Each layer should be the same thickness or slightly thicker than the previous.

(Note: at any time, during any given layer, if you decide you don't like the colors and/or pattern/composition that's happening, pow, obliterate it all! This is really fun and a good way to take out frustration.)

Note: starting with layer 2, I usually start adding some slashing and/or scraping gestures into the paint with the knife. But that's just a personal preference, and will depend on how much texture you like in a painting. I paint these large ones with a cheap, medium or large painting knife, which is great because you just wipe it off and you don't have any brushes to clean... But I imagine that this entire process could work the same way if you're painting with brushes.

You can do whatever you want with color, of course. If you want complementary colors, you can do that on opposing layers; if you want a lot of subtlety in the finished painting, then use all related colors...To avoid making a big ugly color mess, I tend to use only 2 or at most 3 colors in a given layer, and of course I try not to use colors in a layer that will look hideous when showing through. [Can I admit to this simplicity?: in some of these paintings, I use only 2 or 3 colors for the entire painting. This one shown, Rainy Weekend, as well as Suspension 2, I think had only 2 colors plus a bit of a 3rd color.]

The best aspects for me of painting this way are that the pressure to make a great painting in one shot is off, because it's never finished until you're satisfied with the painting. You can live with the painting as long as you want before deciding whether it needs another layer or if it's "done." (As if anything's ever "done" and we're truly "satisfied"!) For me, another bonus is that I have no idea what the painting's going to look like. For some people, that might be anathema; for me, it's freeing. I try to let abstracts (in whatever medium I'm using) speak to me while they're developing. It's never boring. Also, for me, this process works best working fairly large; I think it gives greater freedom and more gestural spontaneity. There's something absolutely decadent about putting out huge swaths of color and trowelling it on as if it were a giant cake you were frosting, and using your whole shoulder and arm to make a mark. But I don't see why this process wouldn't work for smaller works, too.

I do try to keep track of approximately how thick each layer is, and try to keep them thinner the closer they are to the canvas; the final layer should be thicker and the first, thin. (Fat over lean, more or less, though not worrying about the oiliness of the paint so much as the quantity of it that you're using in a given layer.) This should help prevent cracking later.

Another great thing (really!) is that you can use up all sorts of tubes of paint that you bought but don't like...just use 'em up as a layer by themselves, or mixed with a color you DO like. When doing these abstracts, I see the "ugly" colors I bought but didn't like, or that I never really figured out how to use, as sort of my "extenders."

Downsides: you use up a whole lot of paint, especially if you keep adding layers forever because you're not satisfied with the painting; each layer requires being at least touch-dry before adding another layer; the painting as a whole won't be truly completely dry for perhaps a year or several years, though I imagine it would be sellable in just a few weeks. But there's a real freedom in being able to say (if you're working large), Hey, whoa, you know what, I'm using up this ENTIRE tube of paint right now, oh my god! It's kind of cool.

That's the physical/technical process. My mental/emotional process, however, can be remarkably well expressed by this quote I found recently by Diebenkorn: "[A painting] came about by putting down what I felt in terms of some overall image at the moment today, and perhaps being terribly disappointed with it tomorrow, and trying to make it better and then despairing and destroying partially or wholly and getting back into it and just kind of frantically trying to pull something into this rectangle which made some sense to me..."

Hope that's helpful. If I left out some important bit of info, please ask. Happy painting!


More art on my website: jalapfaff.com


Janelle Goodwin said...

Hi Jala, Thanks for describing your process. It sounds like fun. Maybe I'll try it sometime with my unused paint tubes - there are so many colors I don't use anymore. By the way, I really love your abstracts!

r garriott said...

Sounds WAY complicated to me!! (But I'm kinda simple that way.) Really interesting. It must be very freeing to switch between this type of work and the more atlier-type work.

I love the idea of using up the 'ugly' paint colors! Love the Diebenkorn quote, too.

Jala Pfaff said...

Hi Janelle - Thanks! It really is fun and a GREAT way to use up paint tubes.

Hi R - No, no, it is simple!!!! Because none of it is planned. It's just, like, hey, I don't like that painting I did last year, I'm gonna "throw a layer on it" and see if I like it any better. And if not, then repeat. And repeat...etc. And so good to use up the "ugly" colors. :) That Diebenkorn quote resembles my process SO well. It is SUPER freeing and relaxing to go from the tight classical to this stuff. Like, last night I felt exhausted when it was time to paint, and the thought of the high-brain-power still life thing was killing me. Then I thought, aha! I can just go in the studio and throw a layer on something...which is invigorating rather than tiring, and you don't really have to use any brain power, which relaxes the mind.

brian eppley said...

Nice description. You make it sound easy but the key is what you've covered and what you haven't covered in each layer. It seems only a visual response, however, as you say, you are integrating gesture through your motion. Surely your unconscious is activated here and we will see Jala's archetypal patterns surface. A great exercise!

The music of repetition artists, Phillip Glass,steve reich, etc.. seem to do a similar thing. Subtle changes over a basic line. Very art worthy.
Yeah, Diebenkorn had some great things to say and show. Keep up the nice work.

Brian McGurgan said...

Fascinating description of your process, Jala - I really enjoyed reading it. I especially like the way the painting evolves slowly in layers week after week. With the pace of this slow progression and the fact that you haven't planned where it will take you, I can see how this must be very liberating.

I like these abstract paintings very much. I think it's the structure that's suggested by the hints of line and planes that seems to attract me most, along with the limited palette and subdued, neutral colors.

Pam Holnback said...

Thanks for explaining all of this. Your abstracts, as all of your pieces are great. I think I may try one of these.

Samartdog said...

nice value s-s-s-l-l-i-i-i-i-ide....

LSaeta said...

Thank you SO MUCH for this post! So glad to see how you do it and no, it is not that simple! I love the process but I can't imagine what it must be like ... waiting for the drying time in between layers. Do you have ten different ones going at the same time?
Beautiful work, my dear!

L.Holm said...

Hi, Jala - enjoyed reading about your process, too. The patience you have to wait for drying time, then add more paint, then evaluate is impressive. I've been trying my hand at abstracts in acrylic because I thought I was painting too slowly! Goes to show, speed may not always the best approach. These are very strong.

Cathyann said...

I respect you after reading this,and hear you loud and clear. Love the D quote..maybe with a few nips of scotch, I could get into it!LOL...I love your "best aspects...paragraph. I have felt that way too... the title suits the image....Love it!Jala

Jala Pfaff said...

Thanks all of you, for your comments and for reading through a very long post!

I really have to emphasize that for me this is not a process requiring patience at all. It's not a matter of sitting around waiting for things to dry... Rather, it's like each time I pull out a partially-finished one and "add a layer," it's just to see if I like it any better than before I added the layer. If I like it enough, I call it done. If I still don't really like it, I just put it aside and pull it out again some other time to throw on another layer. It's like I'm trying to get to a finish, but I never know if I'm there until a layer goes on that I really like.

And yes, I do keep quite a few around at all times. But they're not always begun consciously. Rather, I might just grab a bad painting that's sitting around and consider that my "first layer."

Kelley Carey MacDonald said...

I love your explanation of your process - and it does seem freeing... I would love to try it. And although I don't usually gravitate to abstracts, I LOVE yours! They have a simple yet deep quality... I could look and look and look at them!

Mary Sheehan Winn said...

I also, like your abstracts very much. Very strong.

Gesa said...

Really enjoyed reading this - I've been putting off working with oils for a while but this description just gave me an idea of what to do with my lime green valley sketches! Love this abstract as well as the two Suspension ones!