Wednesday, August 6, 2014

August Ambrosia

As I stepped out into the cool morning air for my customary jaunt down to the dock to greet the day... my nostrils were immediately filled with a new smell. A new smell... because my "smeller" and all of my other body parts and brain have been cloistered... and too fully engaged in the completion of a challenging and very overdue commission.

Each month has its own smell for me. Each, as well has an association with change(s) that makes it different than any of the other months. Those associations have been formed and burnt into my psyche over a lifetime of being "One" with the outdoor world. They are not based upon science... but rather my own thoughts and experiences. They are triggers... which reliably repeat and evoke memories and creative painting responses from deep in my Self.

The fragrance of the juggernaut July is chocked full of the energy of growth... freshly mowed hay... green grain fields giving way to rich carpets of fluttering gold... suddenly tall... ripening and  heading up corn... the lemony leaf smell of now bulging tomato plants. This perfume is likely heightened and blended by the deep humidity of days and nights of unrelenting heat, July... quite simply smells of energy... strengthened by visual imagery that tells one that summer is on the move. I'd name the fragrance ... "Ambush"... because it sneaks up on the senses so suddenly and without warning.

On this grey... mist-shrouded August morn, I marvelled at how precisely the natural clock moves. The ever-on-time darkish platoon of red-breasted cormorants sweep soundlessly  by me on the outside dock... wings barely above the placid grey... which is the river this morning. Chattering and excited young barn swallows... flitting and fledging in obvious games of tag... show their new wings and provide their annual late summer aerial display. This to me, is always a sure sign that summer is waning... and they will soon be "Birds on the Wire"... communing before their long flight southward.

The smell in the air this morning is changed. It is an acrid fragrance which melds growth and decay simultaneously. The river smell... of fish and aquatic vegetation ... with an added pinch of the garden's floral down turn... all cooled by the dew and mist of this typical August start for the day create a new perfume... well known to me. I'd call it "Ambrosia"... a nostalgic delight... a bitter-sweet fragrance which both greets the possibility of fall... and bids goodbye to summer in the same breath.

The Commission Project

Now that I have conveyed the notion... true... that I am a bit blood hound by nature... I will get back to the painting aspect of this post. I have spent a very challenging week getting my head around what was necessary to get me to the easel to complete my commission. There exists an irony surrounding commission work. Firstly... a commission must be viewed as a compliment from a patron who views your work to be good enough to invest in engaging your services. A plus!

Then... there exists the other side of the coin. Most commissions... like many emails... come with "attachments". These attachments are quite simply guidelines which include their own preferences and tastes. That is to be expected... since the piece will hang in their space.... and they are paying for your services. All legitimate realities one must consider in undertaking a commission. I came across this tidbit this morning in Robert Genn's Bi-Weekly Newsletter... a constant source of enlightenment and insight for me.

"You need freedom in order to create, and you need creativity in order to pay the price for your Freedom."

Robert Genn's Bi-weekly Newsletter
August 5th, 2014

I am deeply grateful for commissions because they challenge me to step up artistically... and to depart the safety of my own artistic "certainty" to learn and to grow further. However... I must confess, that I never quite enter into the commission under full steam. I must find stimuli that excite me to overcome an inward feeling that "I"... am not in full control of my creativity. Art has been the only area of my life where Freedom wasn't a word... It was in fact a sanctuary where I could retreat to... when the world would hurt me... or the din was too much for my spirit. I often say... that my Art... "leadeth me beside still waters.. and  that has ways been so.

This commission is a panoramic format. In that panorama are included a plethora of shapes, details and personal statements... all housed in this vast landscape. The client wanted the panorama to depict an autumn sunset... which really is an event that the owners consider special in their lives. The trick would be to simplify... yet, without losing important markers which make this scene exclusive to this exquisite and unique riverside property.

In order to sort all of this out, I first began by physically"cut n' pasting the desired sections I wanted to use from three separate digital images. Again... I was out of my zone of comfort. But, the fact was... that I couldn't gather more exact images at the actual site because the painting was to be a surprise gift for the property owners from their good friends and neighbours. Here's the mock up that I worked from.

I reluctantly decided to use pencil to actually lay in a map for the painting to follow. I did so ... against my usual urge to get right into painting... because of the complexity of the scene. In that way ... I could add and subtract until I reached an acceptable place to begin. The drawing took me almost the better part of a day to get everything properly placed. I decided to "fix" the drawing using retouch varnish so that it would not be lost during the transition from toning to final painting.

Disaster strikes!.....

It was my plan to proceed at this juncture... by working up a tonal rough in as I often do using burnt sienna,  "blocking in" shapes and important compositional elements and line. That familiar practice gave me a huge lift of spirit. I could finally see a path through to the finish. My "vision" of the finalized work was in my mind's eye! This reminds me of a quote Bob Dylan made when writing and recording his masterwork "Blonde on Blonde":

"The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my head was on the individual tracks in the Blonde on Blonde album. It's that thin, that wild mercury sound".

I'm sure as creative artists.... we have all yearned for that moment when all the world is right. In my own case, I refer to those halcyon moments... "when a  painting just seems to paint itself and I just hold the brush." Everything seems to fall into place without any struggle.... the act of painting seems seamless.

The opposite happened at this point in this commission. The wheels simply feel off the wagon... caused by a critical error that I had made in the second stage. I knew better... but had laid the acrylic over the retouch varnish which I had applied to "fix" the drawing. The huge problem before me became obvious immediately when I began the applying the initial washes of oil on turpentine washes. The turpentine was removing the acrylic burnt sienna as fast as I laid it down. What to do... other than be angry at myself... and panic?

I decided to preserve the drawing by redoing it lightly in India ink... trace amounts to hold the drawing as I gave the entire canvas a turpentine bath to remove every bit of the acrylic tone and the varnish at the same time. It was a risk... but I had no choice but to get back to the canvas and begin the process again in pure paint that would adhere to the canvas and not cause later problems in the hands of the client.

The process from this point forward and to the end followed a familiar path and the commission gradually started to become encouraging... and fun again... as the scene began to emerge in the gradual addition of each area and finally into full focus. Once I completed the necessary balancing act to unite the  sunset sky to the water and the island tree foliage... I sensed the "vision" that connected both the client's wishes with my own inner vision of this landscape.

Glazing with washes is a slow  and tedious process... but the final results achieved...  more than compensate for the time spent. Values can be checked and altered quickly and accurately as you go.

... and "the light" can be turned on... ever so slowly to almost mimic the rising or setting sun's lighting show... the dimming of the day... that wonderful yet elusive to paint... afterglow.

As I sat looking at the [almost] complete canvas... pondering value checks and balances... edges... the usual last notes in the process... my eye kept being drawn to the too centrally located fir which seemed to over dominate the composition with its presence. I thought about moving it slightly left or right... but knew that such a move when  reshape and overcrowd  reality in either direction. Removing it entirely would leave the client feeling something was missing.

Here  is the "solution" I came up with... one that I feel works to resolve this visual conundrum. I carefully placed and added the Uncle Sam's Cruise Line's replica river steamer... out of Alexandria Bay, NY which I have watched ply these waters at this very time in the evening. It's unique and fancifully nostalgic structure is pure "River Magic"... and adds just enough additional weight to the left of... and inb combination with the fir to appear the draw that mass slightly to the left in weight . It's stark whiteness as well offers a compositional element to drive the eye along the water westward to the distant islands.


Here is the final canvas... "River Magic" - oil on canvas 16x32 inches. The physical magic of each River sunrise and sunset can only be rivalled by the pure magic one feels at the conclusion of a creative challenge.
This morning, I feel a weight lifted... and my creative spirit Up!.... lifted. Now, I can resume my outdoor work and adventuring.

I"... am greatly blessed!..... Stay tuned

A closing note about those nasty "rules"... worth remembering... and practising. From the mouth and Soul of the XIV Dalai Lama:

"Know the rules well, so that you can effectively break them."

Have fun breaking some rules.... PLAY!  The Inner Child knows comformity - NOT!

Good Painting... to ALL!


  1. Hi Bruce, well done for successfully negotiating the minefield of commission work. After defusing the earlier problem, that pine tree could have blown you out of the water, but the river steamer came to your rescue!

    It's never good, with our kind of painting, when we have to use our left-brains too much!

    All the best,

  2. Good morning Keith!... Thank you for the kind words!

    I like that "minefield" analogy for commission work... and the necessity for left brain negotiations and steering through the complex maze to completion.

    Ideally... comfortable painting for me is a continuous and seamlessly shifting between right and left brain helmsmanship during the process.

    Genn's quote about the price of creative Freedom is the bottom line. We just have to suck it up... if we want add these important clients to our collectors lists.

    I am blessed... and truly grateful for their support and interest in my work!

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,

  3. Very nice Bruce! I am sure that the recipient will be very pleased.

    I loved tagging along as you completed this piece. Amazing transformation once the river steamer was added. Like magic, it moved the viewers eyes from the tree.

    Doesn't it feel wonderful to complete a project?!

  4. Good Morning Wendy!... It is a relief to have the commission in the rear view mirror! Now I can get back to painting outdoors on location.... I have been really missing that.

    Summer is moving along so quickly... what to do next. Must get out on a walk! Lots right here in the village!

    Thanks for dropping by!

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,

  5. Another post that never rotated to the top of my blog roll...sigh. This is simply stunning Bruce. Your work is absolutely masterful and so gorgeous!

  6. Enjoyed reading about the commission challenge, and process. I think every artist that takes on commissions feels the same way about doing them. the addition of the boat is a great solution to the conundrum about the center tree! The client will be thrilled! Happy painting

  7. Thank you Sherry for your uplifting words! Your visits are always that for me .... and I thank you!

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,

  8. HI Sally ! ... Thanks for dropping by and for your encouraging comments!

    It pays to "play" with the rules and to take risks. Sometimes the "road not taken" indeed yields the best chance to grow... and to learn!

    Happy Painting to you!

    Warmest regards,

    PS The 4th Annual Rockport International Paint Out is scheduled for the week of September 12-14th in Rockport. See if it fits your schedule. The registration details are on Hope to see you there!

  9. such wise words and intricate observations. I love reading your posts.
    Thanks for the step by step on this painting, which turned out beautifully.
    I'm sure they loved it.

  10. Thanks Mary ... for your encouraging words and visit!

    They have yet to see the painting... due to some unexpected serious health issues at their end. Fingers crossed for my patron friends!

    Goods Painting!
    Warmest regards,