painting process

How To Be Great

Work in progress is progressing

Recently I went to see a movie about a piano virtuoso: Seymour: An Introduction. It’s a documentary about Seymour Bernstein, an 85 year-old pianist who gave up performing and now concentrates on teaching high-level students. Bernstein is truly fascinating and even after an entire film, I wanted to know more about him

Two qualities of his personality really stood out for me. First, as a teacher, he was able to make subtle tweaks in his students’ piano technique that made the music infinitely better and more moving. It’s a level of knowledge and sensitivity that even someone like me, who knows nothing about classical music, could appreciate.

Second, he has this huge love for classical piano music—an obsession so enormous that it blinds him to normal perceptions. For example, when he was drafted into the army, it was a complete mismatch for a sensitive boy who had never left home. But he found himself able to march for hours while others fell away, and he attributed that to the mental concentration he had learned from music. And when he found that there was a classical strings player in his troop in Europe, he suggested to his commanding officer that they could do performances. The C.O. scoffed that nobody would listen to classical music. But when Bernstein prevailed, the troops loved the concert. “They wouldn’t let us go,” he remembered happily.

When I saw the movie, about a month ago, I was going through a slump in my work. I had been painting, but I seemed to be stuck. The work for my big exhibition in May was well underway, but nowhere near completion. Therefore, one thing that Bernstein said made an especially big impact on me. He said that on the days when the music went well he was happy. Conversely, he was frustrated on those days when the music didn’t go well. His solution was to practise more, from two hours to three, right up to eight hours of practising.

This solution seems so logical, yet it’s contrary to the laziness inherent in many of us. If the painting isn’t going well, it’s easy to take a break and do something else—check Instagram, have a snack, go for a walk, cook dinner. Perhaps these distractions are even good or useful, but they move us away from the main purpose of our lives. If you want to excel at an art, it will never be easy. An artist will have to put long hours of work into their craft. Sometimes there will be setbacks and screw-ups, but you will keep moving forward. And as Bernstein said, on those good days, you will be happy. The best kind of happy, when you are satisfied with your important life's work.

Thanks, Seymour! The next day, I went into the studio and began working harder. I locked my smarthphone in the car, stopped puttering, and just got down to painting. And you know what? I was able to push my paintings into completed stages immediately. And now I’m happy.

Anatomy of a Painting

Recently I created a painting that was my largest single artwork ever. It was a commission work, so only a few people got to see it in person, but I thought I’d like to write about the process and share the painting with you.

Valerie and I met in 2009 when I exhibited at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition. Since then, I have not returned to the TOAE, but Valerie and I have been in touch by email and I have done some commission work for her before. She has also visited my studio while in B.C., but mainly we work together virtually.

It’s always a joy to work with Valerie as she brings a lot of enthusiasm and very few restrictions. She determines the size and then we discuss which existing paintings she likes, and a very general colour scheme. Not surprisingly, we both love the same colours: brights especially pinks and purply blues.

When I work on a commission, it’s a bit stressful, because I’m constantly worried about whether the client will like the final artwork. It’s impossible to put yourself in someone else’s head, and my process is very unpredictable. Since this panel was 40” x 80”, it was even more daunting. So for the first time, I did an actual maquette on a tiny scale.

Directionally, Valerie told me she really liked my new jellyfish paintings, but she was looking for a more abstracted drawing. I had a vision in my head of a painting that used all the resin colours I have. I did this trial piece on two 6” x 6” panels, at a time when we were still deciding whether to do one large piece or diptych. It was a good starting point, as Valerie decided she preferred a single panel and she didn’t like all the red.

Next step was prepping the panel. I apply gesso, let it dry, and then sand. Repeat ten times (at least) until I get a beautifully smooth surface. It feels so nice to apply ink to a satiny surface.

Here’s the ink drawing. I loved the idea of a more abstracted jellyfish, and I think I will move into this direction. It’s an idea of movement rather than replicating the actual jellyfish. This is one way that doing something new, like a commission or a painting for a themed show, can change your painting direction. I also loved the scale here, it inspires me to do even bigger panels.

I showed Valerie the ink drawing, and once I saw it on the computer screen, we agreed it needed more black. I added that and then the fear set in. Once I added resin, it would be final. I would have to start all over with a new panel if I screwed up. For three days, I had the panel up on the wall, eying it as I did other work until I got up the courage to complete it!

And things did go wrong. Mixing large quantities of coloured resin is actually impossible, since they start to cure right in the containers as I’m working! I ended up moving a smoking container of green resin off the table at the beginning of the process. My overactive imagination had me setting the studio on fire, and becoming the building pariah. In the end, I managed to mix up proper quantities of non-flaming resin and achieve the effects I had in my head.

Since resin has toxic fumes, I have to leave the studio before I can see the final result. I returned the next morning to check on the painting and prep it for final curing. When I hung it on the wall, I felt breathless. The painting was so beautiful! I wanted to share it with someone, so I went out in the hall, but at 7:30 am, there aren't a lot of artists even awake. Luckily, Morley, our wonderful building manager, was in and he agreed to come to my studio for a peek. ("Usually people only want me to come in if a pipe is leaking or something," he said happily.) And he was sweetly appreciative. I also took photos so I could show my family. We were leaving that day for Ontario, so I couldn't bring anyone else in. 

One unique thing about Valerie is that she likes a surprise. So I while I keep her informed during the process—especially the parts I can change—once I do the resin that’s it. I have the painting packed and shipped and she doesn’t see it until she uncrates it in Toronto. I don’t know how she feels during the waiting time, but I’m always nervous until I hear back from her!

The happy ending: she loved it. Here it is in her home—with the giant bear friend of her two sons. I think they were in camp when the painting arrived, but I hope they like it too. I miss the painting! But the good thing about creating amazing new work is that it inspires us to new heights.

Never Say Never

Apply gesso, let dry, sand. Repeat ten times.

“I’m never going to….”

Fill in the blanks yourself. I’m never going to sound like my mother. I’m never going to wear ugly shoes like that. I’m never going to cheer for the Canucks again.

But you know what happens. One day, you’re yelling at your kids and you realize you’re channelling your mom, word-for-word. Or you’re at the shoe store, and you realize that comfort is now more important to you than sexy legs. Or the hockey season starts again, and there are promising players and a nice new team president, so you set the PVR and shake out the car flag.

I’m trying really hard never to say never again. But it’s tough, because I’m a person who makes snap judgements. And latest example of that occurred way back in art school, about seven years ago. My painting instructor was Jordan Bent. He was a young painter and new to teaching, so he tried really hard to challenge our painting process. He brought in car body parts for our still life class. He assigned us to do large-scale self-portraits in the style of our favourite painters—I did a Basquiat and discovered how much of his art was linked to his own appearance. And Jordan invited us to his open studio to get a feel for life after art school.

His studio was in a large, dilapidated factory building which has since been demolished. At the time, Jordan did large abstractions, and he was using giant squeegees to pull paint across in a dreamy geometric pattern. In particular, I remember him explaining his preparation. It involved painting and sanding layers and layers of white gesso before he even began painting. He rhapsodized over creating the perfect painting surface. And while he was talking, I was thinking, “Really, Jordan? Because you know Opus sells pre-primed canvas, right? Why go to all that work for something that nobody will notice?” And then I fatefully vowed, “I would never do that in a million years.”

Sigh. Well, you know where this is going to end up.

It started so innocently. I loved painting on the smooth surface of a wood panel, but I hated the brushstroke texture that occurred when I painted gesso on them. Then I read about an artist who was using a spackle knife to apply gesso. That’s brilliant, I thought. I could apply gesso and have it be all smooth and nice.

Of course, it wasn’t that easy. My small spackle knife was leaving ridges everywhere, and I had to sand them down. So I got a bigger knife, and there was less sanding. But more layers created a smoother surface. And I keep trying to perfect my technique. I ask workmen that I meet for tips, I search YouTube videos on plastering walls, and I was the only person at the art museum in Sydney who spent ten minutes watching the guy prepping the walls for the next exhibition. Luckily nothing is too weird for an art museum.

This past week, I have again been sanding and applying gesso to a two big panels in my studio. I don’t count the layers, but I would estimate them to be seven to ten deep, much like my layered paintings. My recent jellyfish paintings were done on such a surface.

I know the surface is done when it achieves this beautiful smoothness: it’s cool to the touch and silky soft. And when I apply ink to this surface, it flows beautifully. However the ink marks are permanent, as the gesso is porous and nothing can be erased.

Jellyfish, 16" x 16". 

It’s a ton of work, but very worthwhile. And if Jordan Bent were here, I’d apologize to him. And vow never to say never again.