April 22, 2009

Ideas Written Large

Large Ideas, Limited Budgets and Engineering Challenges
My clients had a problem area in their home - a large recessed area with a dubious- looking Asian painting pasted directly to the wall. The painting had become water damaged in areas and was unsightly. They wanted to have something cover this area of about eight feet by seven feet but didn’t want to remove the painting. My clients also wanted any art work covering this area to be easily removable for eventual transport to a new location. Lastly, the project budget amounted to what I would typically charge for something about a quarter of that size.
The problem of what to do within these constraints was bantered about for a few years. A large, lightweight, easily removable artwork seemed to point to fiber art - something that could roll up. But my clients couldn’t find a fiber art piece that suited both taste and budget. A large canvas would have to be put on an equally large frame which would make it not easily transportable. P A mosaic would be too heavy and a collage would take too long. So what I finally settled on was a painting on cotton duck canvas that would be attached to a large diameter dowel and rolled up like a scroll. To keep material costs down I proposed a minimalist approach to composition and colors- using mostly whites. A number of years ago, I had created a series of white, atmospheric paintings with touches of biomorphic details for an exhibition at the Lancaster Museum. The originals were sold off here and there a long time ago but I had images in my archive which I e-mailed to my clients. They settled on a particular composition that I could adjust to a much larger scale.
There was an Asian theme in the room where the large painting would hang so I brought everything in my Chinese art training to the fore in the execution of this project. For structure, I dismantled a damaged Chinese scroll to see exactly how the painting was attached and wrapped around the wood piece at the bottom. It was not simply rolled around the bottom but attached around the back of the scroll with the wood hanging somewhat like a sling. This clever arrangement enabled the scroll to hang flat against the wall and roll up easily. I decided to pattern my own canvas scroll after this design. Such little details like this make such big differences.
Preparing a canvas eight feet tall by eight feet wide that would hang freely turned out to require great patience and some engineering skills. First, the canvas had to be hemmed around the outside except for the piece that would wrap around the wooden dowel. The top had to be looped around to create a space for a removable rod from which to hang it - something like a curtain. This all required finding a seamstress with an industrial grade sewing machine. Through a well-connected artist friend I found just the person in a nearby town. Of course this meant somewhat of a delay getting started as I was dependent upon her getting around to the project when moved to do so but it did get done.
After squaring the canvas I then connecting the bottom to the wooden dowel with PVA white glue Priming the canvas was another challenge. I could not staple the canvas to a conventional stretcher because staples, or tack holes would show up around the seamed edge. So I ironed out the canvas as best I could and primed it carefully on top of painter’s paper. It was a mess. The paper underneath became moist and buckled, which caused the large canvas to crease as well. Not knowing how else to get a better surface I decided to use two by fours and L-brackets to make a large scale frame. I solved the problem of the stapling by stretching the canvas over the frame with contractor’s tape - twisting it and then taping it to the floor with a second piece of tape. After priming, the tape seemed to hold for most parts but I ended up having to buttress the dowel - wrapped end with another piece of lumber. For days my commission looked like it was a patient in traction but I got a good surface.
For a painting this size that would rest in a small room, I thought it would be best for it to be a light as possible - like bright sun on snow. I thought of the paintings one of my professors used to make years ago at Chinese art school. Master Gao was particularly fond of painting La Mei - a kind of Chinese plum blossom that had waxy yellow flowers that would open in the middle of winter. After he painted various intensities of yellow spots on the xuan paper, Master Gao would the prepare washes of pale orange and blue. The washes always looked like a sky in winter. Master Gao would then splatter the whole page with white gouache that he would liberally fling from his brush like Jackson Pollock.
I did something reminiscent of this Chinese master when working on this large canvas by slowly building up washes of greys, metallic silvers and earth tones. While still wet, I scrubbed in a variety of textures, using rags, brooms and windshield cleaners. It was the first time that I actually broke out a sweat while painting. Every gesture with the brush, fingers or other instruments had to be made quickly because I was painting in acrylic. After adding the washes and textures, I painted in a blizzard by flinging and dripping silver, white and cream. Painting on this scale with such vigor was a joy. I was happy to have a large commission and to feel to totally absorbed by the process of painting.
I am now beginning the finishing touches. There will be more solid areas but the challenge now will be to add structure without losing the atmosphere. I am looking forward to Monday, when I can dedicate another full day to this project.

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