Tuesday, January 30, 2018

When "Enlightenment"... Displaces Grief... even Temporarily

Awakening... Applying the "Camino Format and Walking Towards The Light

"Life isn't a science. We make it up as we go."
                    - Al Hirschfield (American Caricaturist)

My Dilemma... a Crossroads                                                         

Many misgivings have percolated through my mind as I plodded my way through this difficult writing and painting assignment. On more than one occasion, I very seriously considered packing it in with every new self-doubt and seemingly impenetrable impasse that crept into the exercise.

The whole purpose of undertaking this painting challenge had been to help foster a therapeutic experience to encourage feelings of renewal. It was never remotely designed to become a taxing emotional assault on an already weakened spirit.

Each new barrier that I encountered (or created) emotionally when added to my artistic clumsiness seemed to focus upon my own feelings of inadequacy in portraiture. It seemed virtually impossible for me to achieve a pleasing and passable likeness of Allison ; one that I would be proud to exhibit publicly to honor her.

The undertaking was intended to interface me confidently with my personal grief. I had hoped that my art would afford me strength and become an ally, helping me to achieve my painting goal. My grief counselor Lisa and a fellow blogger, Caroline Simmill of Scotland (whose work and ethics) I deeply admire, both shared a common belief that my art could help me to navigate my way through the grief that had caused me to become "stuck" emotionally and artistically.

It was this during this see-saw juncture that I recalled a mantra that  had long laid embedded in my memory and practice. It had never failed to guide and offer me support in my journeys. What did I have to lose???

"Listen to your heart. It knows where it's going."

I decided from this point onward to trust my instincts and the practice upon which most of my painting strength and knowledge had previously been based. I would use my landscaping painting knowledge and techniques as a familiar template. I spent almost a full week planning so that the activity would begin with a fuller understanding and foundation.

The first and most essential part of that planning was to search out suitable reference materials which focused upon the compositional elements...theme or template upon which the portrait would be constructed. I felt strongly, right from the onset that I sought more than a purely photographic likeness to be be set upon a blank backdrop of "nothingness". I wanted the painting to have three divisions/layers of space... just like a landscape. Each would reveal a separate element or aspect of Allie's life.

Still, the real truth remains that I am not a "portrait painter", even though my interest in the portrait genre, figure work and the work of leading painters in these fields have always been something that I have admired greatly. My own experience in actually trying my hand at creating them is very limited.

In thinking about the portrait genre broadly however, I finally arrived at a belief that the face is actually in many ways very similar in structure to any landscape. Both broadly consist of combinations of planes, shapes, lines, color and tones.

Holding on to this premise, I felt competent enough to begin the exercise based upon this premise that I could likely handle the crossover from one kind of subject matter to the other in terms of their commonalities.. Besides, I possessed a fine library of books on the subject of portraiture to guide me through any uncertainties which I knew would most certainly crop up. It was refreshing to meet "old friends" again!

 Planning... Preparations to "Walk"

"Fail to plan... plan to fail"

To begin any landscape project, I customarily "scout out" something that interests me greatly... something that I have strong feelings about. At first, I didn't anticipate having any difficulty in my mind with this initial task.

However, I immediately found myself overwhelmed with the task of finding "the right view" in my mind's eye of Allie. A fully frontal view, with all of the foreshortening that would be necessary would in itself present great difficulty. Creating depth and proportion in a purely two dimensional and shallow plane would become a huge problem for this novice. Aside from the technical drawbacks... there remained the huge problem emotionally from actually looking Allie directly in the eye for any length of time. Not easy...

After searching numerous file folders, I rediscovered a file that had always been a favorite of mine. It showed Allison in a thoughtful, but relaxed three-corner view\. That is to say, a view looking on a corner. That has been a strategy I always use with buildings to add to a convey a deeper illusion of space.
While the actual pose was what I wanted, the background didn't really convey a sense of Allie I wanted to portray. I was looking for something that would provide the viewer more insight into her person, interests and life.

Stage One - Photo Reference # One - Allison

Taken in Venice on her final visit to the city she loved... I felt that this particular picture of her sporting a shortened and curlier post chemo and radiation"coiff". It hardly was at all representative of her once long and flowing mane of beautiful auburn hair. But it did accurately portray and capture the complete disdain for the cancer and her unyielding refusal to submit to the disease.

Her thoughtful gaze portrayed the profound sense of wonder and admiration she held for Venice, its unique people and culture throughout her tragically shortened life.

I purposely couched her safely in the lower left corner of the composition, hoping that this unusual... almost awkward positioning might translate to the viewer a sense of safety and comfort and an unrelenting Hope that she was winning her gallant battle. It seemed "right" for me to use it in the Now... despite the reality of the tragic outcome of her struggle.

Ironically, my choice clearly reverberates and fully identifies with Peter Coffman's comment in the Epilogue for his book "camino":

"For everything that is taken something else is given"

I have chosen to replace the anger, sadness, state of loss  I have felt  by juxtaposing Allison's courage and outright struggle right to the end of her journey by presenting her in a visual sense in terms of  a quote by acclaimed essayist, screenwriter, director and Academy Award Nominee Nora Ephron. Ephron herself lost her life to leukemia... "parallel journeys".

"Above all - Be the Heroine of your life - Not the victim."

The second and crucial part of my planning involved selection of the supporting background for this image. After several more days of deliberation and more uncertainties, I narrowed down my possible choices to Allison in Venice, or Allison here on the River where she had been raised, played and began her journey. Both places were equally special to her.

I mulled over both possibilities and finally asked for the opinion of some valued artist friends to perhaps shed light on this quandary and me to resolve the issue. One person that I really admire, without hesitation blurted, "Why not include both?" That spontaneous morsel of wisdom suddenly lifted the weight and veil of uncertainty from my shoulders. The suggestion added clarity and direction. The painting pilgrimage could finally get underway. Two planes of Allie's reality! Double vision!!!

Stage Two - Photo Reference # 2 - The River

This pastoral autumn scene lies due south of our home in Rockport. It was a panel one in a triptych that I completed a few years ago. When Allison first saw it in our gallery, she was deeply moved by its beauty. The site ties us ever together from the early years right up to Now and continues to be significant to all of us in our family.

It is a familiar and deeply comforting view that Deb and look to together... first thing to begin each and every morning. It's is the site of my own daily evening vespers of gratitude and reflection offered after my walk about. It looks out on the very site Allie and I shared when swimming together.

A triptych that I had painted earlier of this landscape in autumn was gifted to Allison and we hung it above her in her bedroom. It hung above her during her entire struggle with her illness. It remains hanging there still...  stoically watching over her treasures and her cremains spread carefully upon her now empty bed. It seemed a fitting River memory that echoes the contemplative and peaceful mood reflected in the first photo reference.

Stage Three - Photo Reference Three -  The Bell Tower - paron de casa ( Master of the house) - Venice

This image captures the very central heart and grandeur of this magnificent magical place... Venezia! It is the beloved bell tower, known affectionately to Venetians as "paron de casa" , or master of the house. The tall brick structure towers majestically above all other structures in Venice and dominates the looming medieval landscape as one first approaches the city via the Lagoon. There is no other comparable or more important structure in the city... other than the Doge's Palazzo in the central square fronting San Marco Cathedral.

I wanted to include this in some way to roll together the three layers of the portrait... creating a virtual, but believable new reality to create a recognizable "read" for the viewer.. Such a landscape storyline would engage the viewer as a fellow pilgrim... sharing Allison's Canadian Camino

The Painting Process

Initial "scratchings"

I decided to use a gallery wrap canvas toned with black acrylic gesso. I felt that the subject needed to be dealt with, maintaining an informal scale to compliment the quiet, contemplative mood I was wanting to achieve. I have had great success in the past achieving warm color and lighting effects using this combination of painting support and ground. I decided upon a manageable 16 x 20 inch format.

Using each of the photo references mentioned above in succession, I arrived at this very loose and flexible composition "possibility" upon which my initial painting could begin. This white chalk "scribble", or shorthand drawing would serve only as a guide to explore ideas as they arose.

First Application of Color

I decided to begin that search using paint in the sky area because it would determine the rest of the painting's mood coloristically and tonally. Even at this stage... nothing would appear in its final state. Each passage  was to simply be a statement of "possibility" using only very transparent washes of colour.

Allison's First Appearance
This photo doesn't really capture the real sequence of events as I had planned them. I mentioned that I was treating the painting based upon a landscape approach which despite this photo was the fact. I did paint the far shoreline in as it appears here and was immediately confounded by the emptiness by the result. I felt strongly that I needed to include some reference to Allison right at this point.

I decided to "shoot from the hip", using much the strategy that I use when working en plein air if I am overwhelmed, or feel that I am losing the painting. I laid in a very broad and very transparent wash in the water area, just to give the blackness less emphasis and then began the process of blocking in colour (somewhat extraneously)  to allow Allison's image to appear. There is actually more attention paid to her clothing than to her facial features. This area actually appears very clumsy... even amateurish.

The strategy actually pulled me through this first challenge. Even at this very early stage, what is recorded helps me to clearly establish the three distinct divisions which contribute to creating a sense of depth of space - foreground to middle ground to background... albeit that the distance between the latter two is still rather shallow.

This entire project, closely mirrors the largess and risking that undertaking a pilgrimage a one thousand mile trek presents. There has to be a continual risking... a pushing of the envelope to bring about finishing. I did not want to return to the plaguing uncertainties which I knew occur with over planning. I well know where that leads in plein air painting.

So at this point in the game... I am going to "go all in." By that, I mean that I am going to lay all of my cards on the table... without boring you with my commentary or explanation. I will be content to let you read it as you may and hopefully, as is my intent... you can relate visually to the development of the painting towards its finish.

"Canadian Camino... il Camino di Allie"
oil on canvas - 16 x 20 inches

Closing Time...

At this point, I had thought the painting finished... but in closer scrutiny I realized that I had mistaken two very similar Venetian bell tower monuments. In my first take I had mistaken the tower at Santa Maria della Salute which sits in the lagoon facing the tower located centrally in the San Marco Square in Venice itself. Not a huge or entirely noticeable error to the untrained eye... but the scholar in the picture would be glaring at me in disbelief and scorn!
I made the small very subtle changes necessary to calm the critical and knowing eye of any academic... including Allison's. The Universe speaks in mysterious ways! HA HA!!

Final Footsteps... into Enlightenment

The title in no manner intends to say that my journey, or current feelings of "enlightenment" are permanent. By any measuring stick, be it  a spiritual, religious or academic one... this state is only temporary. The intent in all three areas is that one continues to pursue further growth and knowledge to bring about new experiences and opportunities to experience life on a higher plane... and with greater gratitude and a greater appreciation for the small daily blessings in life.

Through my grief which has been crippling... I have indeed opened the door a crack and have begun my walk back into the Light of "before". I try desperately not to look back towards the "old" normal. However, it does contain many memories and moments of joy for certain.

But I have chosen to walk a new path. A new journey on which I carry only those precious memories from the past which I am able to carry with me... leaving essential space to gather new ones along this new path as it unfolds before me.

I intend to paint with more purpose... only those subjects which I consider valid to me... given the time left to me that I can expect will permit me to paint. I have always been a "Dreamer" - a title and social expectation which still today carries along with it... very negative views and implications. I just have to look and listen "Southward".... some things simply don't die easily.

I would like to close out this lengthy post dedicating it to two other "Beautiful Dreamers". They both... dared to dream... and they both contributed so much to Life... Joy and Peace for others. One is obviously my dearest Allison. 

The other is Jeffrey J. Boron, A Victoria, BC artist, poet, blogging friend and fellow dreamer who sprinkled his stardust so generously throughout his entire painting life. Jeffrey passed away too soon on Thursday, January 11th, 2018 at 68 years of age. This brief sampling of his dreaming-into-verse tells the whole story ... for us all really:

                                   "We are all formed from stardust and to the stars we return."

Twinkle and shine on Allison and Jeffrey... till we join you in your constellation of fellow dreamers.

I love you FOREVER Jemima Puddle Duck!


  1. Dear Bruce your painting of Allison is just so lovely. You painted from the heart and it certainly shows in this beautiful tribute to your beloved daughter. God bless you Bruce. Hugs!

  2. Dear Debbie... So nice of you to drop by again... and to leave such uplifting words. Your continued presence over the years has continued mean a great deal to me and my painting. Thank you for these blessings!

    I did paint deeply from my heart to honor my brave daughter... the only gift I could offer "Her" at the very painful end of her earthly journey was to offer my promise to her that I would live the remainder of mine fully to honor her with pride.

    This painting is the first step in honoring that promise to her!

    God bless you too Debbie and rich blessings in your life!

    Warmest regards,

  3. Hi Bruce, I just spent a quiet time reading your very interesting post of how you came to create Alison's very special portrait. I was wondering where the painting is hanging now! I often find that when people are put into a painting it tends to change things a great deal. I like the way the landscape in this painting is quite a gentle back drop around Alison. She is proud of you Bruce, this is a very special painting. Thank you for sharing it and your story with us all. Now what? what will unfold for you now ...to explore!

  4. Hi Caroline!... Queen's University... our family "alma mater" and the site of Allie's teaching career have requested our willingness to have the painting of Venice which I had given to her for her office.

    They propose that it be permanently hung in the Grad Room to honor her many contributions to students and the university alike. We have agreed because it will continue to inspire future students who might wish to follow her path towards excellence.

    We intend to have a small gathering of family, university officials, close friends and some of the graduating class on Convocation Day in May of 2018.

    Allison's Mom, Joan felt it might be nice to have a "double unveiling"... which would offer Allie's presence to this occasion.I am honored. Joan has no knowledge of it yet... but the portrait will be formally gifted to Joan and Andrew.

    The Universe will will provide direction Lass... I will simply respond. I have complete Faith in that fact/belief.

    "Life isn't a science. We make it up as we go."
    -Al Hirschfield (US Caricaturist)

    Thanks for dropping by and for adding your always cogent thoughts and questions.

    Warmest regards and blessings,