In Suspension – March to April 2020 24×48” acrylic on canvas
I have finished a painting, In Suspension, that began six weeks ago, on March 16, when I set off for a day of painting in wilderness isolation. I had just made the stressful decision to cancel my upcoming solo show in New York City due to impending closures in response to the COVID-19 crisis. That day I should have been packing paintings for the show, but instead I headed for a waterfall within an easy drive, seeking distraction and solace.
I went to a location where I had painted many times before, just north of the Lake George, NY, town of Bolton Landing. Across from the Clay Meadows entrance for the Tongue Mountain trails, there is a sharp turn in Northwest Bay Brook that can be seen after a short scramble through the woods. There are multiple vantage points to set up an easel, although I often find myself in the same location, near stream level, at the dramatic twist in space. There the water churns over boulders and is forced to curve by cliffs whose angles have been gradually softened by the power of the flow. Looking in any direction, I can always find dynamic relationships to portray.
That day the parking lot was very full, overflowing onto both sides of the road as many hikers were also using nature to do their social distancing. Heading away from the trails, I brought canvases and sketch pads of several sizes and proportions, not knowing what would inspire me. I was curious to see how much water was flowing with the spring runoff. What struck me first had little to do with the lively flow. A very long tree trunk bridged the stream at a height that suggested it had been carried there in a flash flood before getting wedged in tightly, perpendicular to the flow. I realized fairly quickly that I would build the composition around that pale linear form. Something about the stranded trunk resonated with my own sense of time suspended by COVID-19. There were reverberations of both sudden catastrophe and the regular flow of natural forces. If the water were to suddenly return to the tree’s level, I would have been under water.
The process of finishing the large painting followed a fairly common pattern over the next six weeks — intense work alternating with days of only making a few slight changes. I started with several days of painting at the spot on sunny days and then worked long days in the studio for the next week or so before taking a break while I figured out how to finish it. I worked from memory, photographs, a knowledge of what natural forms look like, and ideas about what makes a compelling image. Eventually I was not able to return to the stream while non-essential travel was curtailed.
March 16 First Step – an exploratory sketch 12×18”
On the first day I painted in monochrome, trying to understand and paint the relationships between the rocks, swirls and log. I experimented with videotaping myself while I worked because I wanted to try sharing what I do on the internet — as a way of replacing cancelled gallery shows and art talks.
March 20 – Preparations to return to the stream
A few days later, in the studio using my sketch, photographs and videos, I took an hour to lay out the basic structure that I would build on when I returned to the stream on the next sunny day. I had no idea what the final palette of the painting would be or how detailed it would be, but I knew that the nearly horizontal angle of the receding space on the right would create a nice tension with the solitary log.
March 21 at the stream 2:30 – 6pm
The first day at the stream I concentrated on establishing the structures and colors of the far shore. I focused on the energy of the angles of the cracks, highlighted by the glancing overhead light. The lines of light were gone in an hour and I continued with other elements, gradually finding the angles and curves that would create the space. Later on, I would eliminate the log’s shadow on the water, but I plan to do another version that uses that intriguing detail.
March 22 1:45- 5:30
The second sunny day I concentrated on the water on the right side as it splashed and curved around the bend. I used lines of ripples to lead both down and across the surface and created curves that would sit on the surface and generate energy.
I kept switching back and forth between various sizes and shapes of brushes as well as between dark and light colors. I smeared some shapes and lines to imply movement and to add to the variety of interesting marks. Slowly working out from the center, I began to define the cliffs on both sides and at my feet.
March 23- April 3
In the studio After two days painting on the canvas at the stream, the scene was fully developed and I spent two weeks working on and off in the studio. I stayed home for several reasons – there were few sunny days, there were more insistent travel restrictions and I knew the painting needed careful adjustments only loosely based on the actual scene. At this point in the process I am mainly concerned about making the painting work in terms of the visual flow and the sense of light. Whole areas were repainted several times without completely eliminating the energy of the underpainting. I wanted the smaller sections to each have relationships and descriptions that would make the eye linger yet still be part of the whole.
A few weeks later, I tackled it again. In two days of work I was able to make some important adjustments to bring emphasis back to the suspended log and the spinning of the whole space, not just the water. I kept adjusting the peripheral elements that had been bothering me, that didn’t contribute to the whole painting. The play between clarity and ambiguity has always interested me and as I worked, I kept in mind my desire to express the delicate balance between chaos and order and my increasing interest in reflecting a de-stabilized world. One of the changes was to reduce the heaviness of the recently darkened cliffs on the left with adjusted angles and lightened tones to merge with the water while leading the eye downstream. As an experiment, on the right I added shapes of light branches a bit closer to the cliffs to make a visual bridge. Suddenly there was a visual spinning in the air above the water. I hadn’t known that was what was needed. I’m assuming that there will be some minor changes in the months to come, perhaps after revisiting the stream when non-essential travel makes more sense.
The trip in mid-March to the waterfall had been designed to find distraction and solace. I was able to lose myself in my work that day and comfort came from witnessing the rhythmical patterns within the seemingly chaotic natural forces. But as I developed this painting, I recognized a need to build into it that delicate balance of the threat of things falling apart and pleasure of things pulling together as a whole. Future works will likely be more reflective of that dialogue, which may not always be in balance.
Author’s note: The complete documentation of the painting process includes many more photos of both the motif and the stages of the work as well as videos of me at work. I am developing them into several video segments which can be seen on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/user109783554
Stages of the painting https://vimeo.com/413265240
Painting the water https://vimeo.com/413250018