Friday, May 05, 2017


For the urban dweller pastoral landscapes may be soothing to consider--broad views of cool green meadow lands or distant mountains punctuated by sinuous rivers supporting copses of trees might comfort the overheated city dweller, for example. Conversely someone living in a high-density city may not find city streets appealing. It depends on your experience and point of view. For me, city streets and street life in whatever part of the world are infinite in color, variety, tone, population and density, and perhaps most of all, narrative. City streets can be joyful or dreary, filled with dancing light or dark, shadowy and menacing. The stories to be retold are infinite.

Cities present all kinds of opportunities and difficulties for the artist. For one thing, the overlapping buildings, signs, autos, and people provide endless interlocking shapes and colors to explore. Compositional opportunities abound--perspective as streets that vanish into the distance, atmospheric haze that blues skyscrapers, lapping of shadow and light across bright sunlit boulevards are part of the hive that is a city.

Richard Estes, "Jone's Diner," oil, 1979
It is tempting to take a sort of journalistic view in painting city streets. The urge to reproduce every glint of light, every reflected figure or vehicle, every detail, is common, I suspect. It's tempting for anyone, but the results are too often unfortunate when one tries to paint so minutely.

That isn't to say that high detail in painting can't be successful. Photorealism is a movement that provides a good example of high detail. The works of painters like Ralph Goings Richard Estes and Charles Bell, among a number of others, can be startling because of their resemblance to big photographs, and indeed they are based in photography. The images often seem to include the most minute detail, but even those hyperreal paintings are interpretations in paint. Analog photographs depend on characteristics of the film to provide sharp focus and detail; perhaps digital images will make photorealism even more.photographic.

My work is anchored in realism, but it's more about the paint than about detail. Rather than making paintings in the meticulous and nearly geometric style of the hyperrealists, it's more important to me to show my own view, not the camera's. That isn't to say that I paint on site, outdoors. Mostly I don't use oils outdoors, where I prefer water media. Instead, my own street scenes rely on photographs or those watercolors but evolve from reference materials rather than reproducing them.

"Novelties," oil,16x20, 2015
This painting is a former business in Manhattan, said to be the last novelty store there, until it closed years ago. The store was famous for its bright blue facade. The painting is based on photographs encountered online. I was taken partly by the bright blue of the building but also by the chance to contrast color temperatures and employ aerial perspective. The skyline, water tanks, and other details as well as most of the colors were invented. The choice to crop out the sidewalk and street helped to emphasize the facade, and without people the building looked even more empty to me.

"Positively 4th Street," oil, 16x24, 2016
Left is an oil painting of a well-known coffee house in Des Moines known as Java Joe's. It happens to be on 4th Street and is often full of interesting people of all generations and persuasions. I was interested in the old, re-purposed building, the cooler color range and the sky reflected in the tall windows above the facade. The street tables were a bonus.

"Abe's," casein, 20x20, 2017
One of my new interests in the past year has been casein paint. It's a medium I hadn't explored until now, although I've known about it since my student days. Casein is similar, in some ways, to acrylic paint--like acrylics it dries like lightning--but different in others. Casein dries to a matte finish, which photographs well but narrows the value ranges. And it's tough to achieve deep darks with it for the same reason. Nevertheless, casein is a valuable, and quick medium for painting. This painting is 20x20 on illustration board. I'm still exploring casein and its possibilities, and this work began as an investigation into the paint and how it can be used. "Abe's" is invented. The buildings, signs, and detail all come from imagination and from seeing many many buildings. No reference photos were used.

Although casein is an interesting medium, my guess is that oil paint will remain my favored medium for this sort of work. The range of values you can achieve, plus the advantage of using various techniques to alter the open time of oil paint make it more versatile and to my eyes the result is more pleasing. But I'm going to continue exploring casein. It's intriguing.
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