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The Onion Chronicles

We keep our onions in a box and safe from the mice. The mice are all dead now. We trapped them in the early days of spring. But still we keep out one trap (just in case). And still we keep our onions in a box. Some nights they stay out on the counter. And some times they spend weeks in the dark cabinet sitting atop my boxes of homebrew. In that darkness they grow and sprout green and white shoots. We can no longer cook with them, but they’re perfect for painting.

A month and a half ago I found two of these onion sprouts and pulled them from their box and placed them on the dinner table in the warm window light. They needed to be painted. I chopped up an old cardboard box to craft a makeshift backdrop. And going back to the way I painted a few years ago, I sketched out the onions in pencil on an 8×10″ panel and then inked over the pencil with a Sharpie.

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In the first session of painting, I focused on covering all of the white. Now that summer is approaching and I’ll be doing more painting, I must spend some time prepping panels with washes of color. That way I won’t have to worry about white spots peeking through.

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Originally I tried to match the background colors with the actual color of the cardboard backdrop, but quickly gave that up. I focused more on incorporating purples and yellows to match the onions. Eventually this lead to what my college professors would call a “meaty” background.

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Once the entire surface was covered I really honed in on the front onion. I wanted to render the peeling skin.

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Unfortunately, because I took too long between painting sessions, the background onion began to rot and dissolve. I had to change the painting around and wound up not being able to put as much time into it as the foreground onion. Still, it came out decent. It makes me want to do some more vegetable paintings this summer.

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The Muted Tones of Cupcakes

The cupcake in today’s painting lasted over a month in my still life set-up. Yeah, that’s a little gross to think about. But it was great for my art. I first painted it in gouache for Tilted Cupcake and noticed it was still holding up, so I put it together with a coffee mug. I wanted to focus on the purples and pinks while keeping everything fairly muted.

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I started with a blue-gray background and tried to keep the colors tonally similar to that starting gray. From there I was able to deviate into darks and lights.

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I spent a good amount of time rendering the cupcake and its frosting swirls. It became the basis for my lights. Nothing could be brighter than it.

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Muted Cupcake

8″ x 8″

With the cupcake started I could branch out tonally and with color. My goal was variety from that point on. I introduced complementary colors into the shadows. You’ll notice that the perspective is also from my other still-life set-ups and that was because this was my last one before I moved. I wanted to try something new before I had to put together a new studio space.

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The Energy in a Sugar Jar

Summer is here. It doesn’t feel real. A couple weeks ago I graduated with my M.Ed. and now my internship will be done in a week. It’s hard to believe I’ll be teaching in a few months and being paid to do it. Really the reason it feels weird is because I’ve been so busy with work. I was able to get a little reading done in my free time, but my art progress slowed. Occasionally I got to paint. And because I wasn’t able to devote large blocks of time to making art, it to took me several months to finish one painting.

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Sugar Jar

9″ x 12″

I started this painting right after I finished my Blue Winter Self-Portrait. I was inspired by the color variety I was able to explore in the shadows. Hopefully the pinecones are still readable as pinecones. Here are the progress photos:

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And the final photo once again:

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I’ve been finding and following a bunch of artists lately. Many of them have mentioned the difficulty of taking the energy present at the beginning of the painting and maintaining it until the end. I loved the looseness and playfulness of the self-portrait and wanted to replicate it. I did bring an energy into this still-life but I’m not sure I carried it through. I think I got caught up too much in the exactness of the sugar jar. Edges are my new focus. I have a feeling the movement and energy of a painting can die there.

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Blue Winter Self-Portrait

 

Back before Thanksgiving I purchased two decorative gourds at the local Market Basket. They were a buck a piece and I thought their shapes would be interesting to explore in paints. I did a gouache painting of one and then put them both together to do an oil study. As I’d hoped, they were fun to work with. I then decided to include them in a larger still life.

I’ve been trying to improve several aspects of my art. First: my eye. I’ve been focusing on really visually understanding color and value, for example: not just assuming that a blue cloth is dark blue in its shadow. Second: technique. There are so many ways to work with oil paints and I’m still finding my niche. I’m trying to use more medium now to keep my paintings oily and alive. Third: color theory. Several recent visits to museums has made me realize how important color theory is. Van Gogh’s paintings really do sing in person because he understood what colors play off one another. So for the larger gourd still life I decided to focus on the secondary colors of purple, green, and orange.

The gourds served as my orange and I had a bed sheet that worked as my purple, but I was unsure of what to use for my green until I was once again walking through Market Basket. Pickles! They’re so strange and otherworldly, floating like museum specimens in a jar. It’s gross, weird, and despite all that, truthfully mundane. They’re only weird when you take a moment to think about it. I suppose that goes for most things.

Once I had my pickles I found that there was still something missing from my setup. It lacked balance. I don’t have a lot of orange things around my apartment, so I went with a NERF gun and bullets.

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  Harvest               9″ x 12″

I tried to balance the warm purples of the forefront with cool purples in the background. That may have worked better than the incorporation of the NERF gun. It seems too yellow and not enough orange. Overall, I’m happy, though I think the contrast between light and dark could’ve been stronger.

For a change of pace I turned the next day to self-portraiture.

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I used another 9″ x 12″ canvas washed in burnt umber and began with a blue gray underdrawing.

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Remembering to work in simple shapes, I kept my first paint through focused in one light, one medium, and one dark. Then I speckled in a few halftones.

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With the basic forms distinguished, I worked around trying to refine them by using warmer colors. Originally, I wanted to begin with cool blues and then paint over with warmer flesh tones, leaving the shadows cool, but as I worked I kept it generally cool all over.

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I managed to maintain the cool tones despite bringing in lots of warm colors. This flickering contrast really worked to sell the plane changes in the face.

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I don’t often paint the figure, but when I do I like to start at the nose when I’m refining shapes. Noses have so many wonderful plane changes and vary greatly in every manner, making them instrumental in creating a likeness.

 

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With the face mostly worked out, I turned to my shirt. I used green blues to separate the clothing from the blues in the skin.

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   Blue Winter Self-Portrait             9″ x 12″

You may recognize the background from my Patterns painting. I do like that fabric. This painting was mostly a sketch and color trial, but I like the way it turned out. One of my most successful paintings in a while. I learned a lot about color while working on it that has influenced my decisions in my upcoming still life.

And I would like to thank my lovely mother for taking the final pictures of my paintings. Thanks mom! And I would like to thank my lovely girlfriend for letting me use her belongings in my still life. Thanks Sarah!

Here’s an animated gif of the progress:

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Both paintings are for sale. Contact me at thewritingmann@gmail.com if you are interested!

Harvest – $600

Blue Winter Self-Portrait – $300

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Two Gourds

I tried a couple new things last week. First I attached my GoPro to a selfie rod, taped the rod to my easel, and videotaped myself painting.

I’m preparing for my next still life, which will focus on the secondary colors purple, green, and orange. This was a sketch to get a feel for gourd colors.

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In order to prevent my easel from shaking considerably and ruining the footage, I premixed the majority of the colors. The painting took three sessions, each around an hour, and I mixed a 24 color palette each time. This is a new technique I will be doing in the future. Premixing helps me concentrate on color and value differences. Early on in art school we spent time premixing, but it is a tactic that fell out of use for me personally. Time to bring it back.

By starting this next still life, I begin my third in a 10 painting series. At the point of conclusion I hope to have a consistent enough portfolio to submit to galleries.

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Forty Ounce

It’s been almost a full month since I posted the first few sketches of my forty-ounce painting. Though I’m disappointed I haven’t been able to post as often as I’d like, I understand my pace will have to fluctuate depending on the time of year. I’m in a teaching internship now, so my current time usage is probably similar to what it’ll be when I’m full-time. But I’ll have summers off! And I fully intend to capitalize on that. For now, I work with what time I can get.

I feel like I begin with that statement every other post.

For a few months after I took a class with Numael Pulido, I was painting using medium. First I used a mixture and then I switched to liquin. My paintings took a leap forward at this time. Then I began painting on smaller canvases, trying to get faster. I stopped using medium and went back to using oil straight from the tube. This was also partly because I’d read that the use of liquin can yellow a painting over time. But it seems from what I read now that most anything can yellow a painting over time. Recently I’ve been trying to improve my technique by addressing issues like canvas texture and varnishing, so naturally I decided to readopt the use of medium as well.

For my latest painting, 45 and Bulbs, I prepared the canvas with five or six watered down coats of gesso. I sanded the surface to give it a very slight, varied texture. I’ve grown to hate the uniform tooth of factory canvas. I did everything I could to counteract it. After the gesso dried, I toned it all in a medium blue-gray.

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I started off taking progress pictures but became frustrated with the lighting. The days are getting depressingly short and I struggled to get good pictures with the dying light. After three or four attempts, I gave up.

I sketched out the general shapes with burnt umber. I didn’t spend too much time on the preliminary drawing since I’d spent so much time sketching the setup already.

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40 and Bulbs

I wonder how other artists view the process of painting. To me, it’s like building a pyramid out of blocks. The largest blocks go on the bottom and every following layer uses slightly smaller blocks to build towards the pointed top. I lay out blocks of color in my paintings and then come back around searching for the next smallest blocks of color. Rinse and repeat.

Though I struggled with the reflections in the lightbulbs and the foreground shadows, the most difficult task was keeping everything level and straight. Even now it seems the angles are off.

The background and foreground are two different beach towels. I’m trying to use patterns in all my still life paintings. Soon I’ll be digging through the bed sheet piles at Goodwill.

45 and Bulbs is 12″ x 16″ and on sale for $500. If you’re interested in purchasing this painting contact me at thewritingmann@gmail.com.

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Patterns

Several weeks ago I started at Exeter High School as an English intern and since then I’ve been swept up in the start of the school year. At the beginning I was spending most of my days mentally planning out what to say to the students. Since I teach the last class of the day there is plenty of time to build up some anxiety. But I’m relaxing now and don’t get too nervous until ten minutes before the class begins.

Though I’m teaching English, I’m still spending my afternoons painting. I set up a still life in the spare bedroom right before the school year began and I’ve been whittling away at it.

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In the past I used canvases straight from the factory. I’d tone them and then paint. The woven threads, or tooth, of the canvas often showed through my paintings. I didn’t like it. The tooth was too perfect, too symmetrical, and pulled attention away from the actual painting. To remedy this problem I gessoed my canvas several times, sanding between coats with 80 grit sandpaper. I didn’t create a perfectly smooth canvas, and nor did I want to. I left the brush strokes barely visible in the gesso so they would later show through a bit. This would make it appear as though I was applying my oils over other layers of paint. The imperfections would help create a more painterly finished product. After gessoing the canvas I toned it in a mid-tone of blue-gray.

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The idea for this still life stemmed from my acquisition of a black, metal teapot from my parents. They’re cleaning out their house and found it hidden in a cabinet. The hammer and vase were added as I developed a theme, which wound up being: black. It’s hard to paint the variations in the darks and I wanted that challenge.

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Since the canvas had been toned blue, I decided that I would use something orangey-red as contrast, allowing the blue to peek through in places and give the viewer’s eye some nice visual stimulation. I found my girlfriend’s old tapestry in a bag and used that for contrast. I stacked up a few boxes and draped the red cloth over them

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Much of my inspiration for this piece stems from the work of David Cheifetz. Particularly The Experiment. I also borrowed his technique of putting a two-way fold in the cloth to give the painting more depth. You can see an example of this technique in Prosperity. I used it in my painting to give the teapot more height so it would balance out with the vase.

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The most fun I had was putting in the rough patterns on both the vase and cloth. I did not try to get too exact or particular. It was a bit like sketching. I was trying to just figure out where everything needed to go.

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After one full paint through for each object the painting started to come together. I fell in love with the vase and spent many early sessions devoting attention to its gold patterns.

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Once I had everything mostly laid out I began tackling the background. Here I went with a flat brown and then realized it was too dark. Something need to be remedied. It needed more light.

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The setup was lit left to right so I decided I should echo that flow of light in the background. I spent an entire four hour session working it out. I pre-mixed dozens of colors in order to give the background a speckled, multi-colored effect.

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Next I had to lighten up the cloth. I explored different mixtures, seeing how cadmium red would develop when mixed with burnt sienna, cadmium yellow, and cadmium orange. I brightened the top right tremendously and slightly brightened the bottom right.

 

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Patterns 12″ x 16″

After adding the lights and highlights, I had to work on the darks. The left sides of the teapot and vase needed darkening to make them appear more round. My last session was mostly spent tinkering here and there to see what more I could do.

The final photo left the cloth appearing a little more orange than it is in life, but it’s a good representation besides that. I’m excited to start the next setup. I already have a plan.

If you’re interested in Patterns, it is on sale for $650. To purchase, send me a request at thewritingmann@gmail.com!