Behind the Artist’s Curtain

One of my favorite movie lines is spoken by the Wizard in Oz, when he says “don’t pay any attention to the man behind the curtain!”  Dorothy and her friends have glimpsed that the Wizard is using mechanical contrivances to create an illusion that fooled them completely, but was revealed to be a hoax. In this post, I am going to take the reader into some new techniques I have been using in my recent down east paintings, but hopefully they will not be a disappointment to the viewer. I have always maintained that art, by its very nature and essence, is a lie–although often an inspiring and esthetic experience. For example, many have marveled at the way the eyes in portraits like the Mona Lisa “follow” the beholder of the image. Yet, after I have explained what the “mechanics” of achieving the effect are, the “mystery” is dispelled. Leonardo used chiaroscuro and sfumato, techniques of shading that elude fixed linear definition. Thus, the viewer is able to perceive “movement” that he mentally supplies, unconsciously.




leavesTwo of the recent paintings dealing with my fascination with the spectacular autumnal splendor down east, ended up with a component that foreshadows winter. While I did not plan that aspect, I will illustrate how it happened, “behind the curtain” of even my own consciousness. The first painting involved actual leaves painted and imprinted on the canvas. I  started by using painter’s tape and rectangular pieces of aluminum I found in the barn, spraying the ground around the objects. The result resembled a photographic cyanotype, which was developed toward the middle of the 19th century (objects were placed so that they blocked light exposure and created white shapes).. After varnishing the entire canvas after the paint had dried, I removed the tape and rectangles and added the leaves. It seemed strange to take the gorgeous leaves in mottled reds, yellows, and brown, and actually paint them to produce the printed image. The next step was to create intermittent acrylic ink lines, which is one of my stylistic trademarks. The final step was varnishing and signing the piece. The effect ended up resembling enamel on copper, with a depth of deep color contrasting with the unpainted areas. Visitors in Maine and Florida have enjoyed the “winter” aspect of the white, partially indistinct shapes of some of the leaves. This was not planned, it simply happened as a result of the technique described.




paintings1Now, to really go behind the scenes, I will illustrate the second canvas, where I used ferns instead of leaves.  The very first evidence of fall occurred in a large clump of ferns at Schoodic Point, which surprised me one day with copper/gold brilliance. A week or two later, at the height of the fall foliage, I came across a plethora of these ferns at nearby Jones Pond. I gathered an armful, and brought them home, placing the stems in a pail on the stove in the kitchen. In the photograph, you can see how I placed them on the canvas, using painter’s tape to affix them while I sprayed the entire canvas. When I removed the ferns and the tape, the effect was, again, like a cyanotype. paintingsI also include a photograph of the painting at the foot of the stairs, when I had to move the painting from the barn studio into the watercolor studio upstairs in the house. Although it was “unfinished,” I decided to take it with six other completed  paintings back to Florida.

My original plan had been to use oil or chalk pastel on the white areas, but the entire feeling of fall and the advent of winter was lost after a week of 90 degree heat and humidity in Florida. This made it almost impossible to retrieve the feeling of the unstoppable and imminent progress of winter. However, I mixed heavy gel into the acrylic paint to delicately suggest the fall colors. This took awhile, because I wanted some of the lines or bars to weave over and under the ferns and each other. Because the ferns had not been taped tightly down, the spray paint had given a  three dimensionality to the background. By playing with the white lines or bars, I could enhance this. But my signature black lines ended up in the edges of the white areas, and with a wet brush the lines became soft and organic. This gave the appearance of branches, which again was unplanned.

Once I finish a painting–or think I have–I move the canvas out of the studio into the house, which always has over 100 paintings hanging on the walls. Then I can walk by it, contemplate it without tools and paint being readily available, and see if  it “works.”  Does it maintain its own identity, as do the others around it?  No one has seen it yet, except the immediate family, and we’re all enjoying it. And who ever could have figured out the process behind the image?

But now you see behind the curtain, which actually has nothing to do with the way you see the image…but it is rather fascinating, don’t you think?





1 thought on “Behind the Artist’s Curtain”

  1. Yes, it really IS interesting how you get some of your techniques! The ferns painting puts me in mind of my garden last year with the Artichoke leaves and the bamboo sticks I’d lashed together to create a dog-barrier and how it didn’t work all that well and they were always askew. And when the Artichoke plant dies, it turns that same golden brown. Also looks a bit reminiscent of Jack Frost’s work on the windows. Very nice imagery!

    And the leaves painting looks SO cold and wintry, I can almost hear the wind blowing and feel the sting in the air of the promised winter to come.

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