March 6, 2014

A Painted Box

A commissioned art work is always a challenge. An artist’s artistic abilities are tempered by a client’s need for a particular kind of interior decoration. I don’t mind at all tailoring my painting or mosaics to suit a particular location. It is certainly different, however, from painting freely in the studio. Technical considerations often come up which create a need to learn a few new skills. A client’s tastes and interior decor are factored in as well.

I recently completed a painted box that is to be displayed on a mantel underneath a reproduction of a Piranesi. I didn’t look at my client’s Piranesi print and perhaps I should have, because for some reason although he said “Piranesi” my brain heard “Nicolas Poussin.” Images such as the painting reproduced here danced in my head: dark shapes against a turquoise blue sky. Piranesi, conversely, was more famed for his black and white etchings. Nevertheless, my painting was influenced by classical traditions and hopefully will look just as well beneath a Piranesi as it would have with a Poussin.

My client was interested in a box painted with images of birds and flowers. He is a bright and discerning fellow, with a formidable musical career as scholar, educator, and performer. For this reason I made two mock up studies in acrylic on a long piece of paper that would wrap around the box so he could see what it would look like and have personal input into the aesthetic process. My first painting study was basically a dark on light design. But my second design was based on my visions of the wrong painter, Piranesi, and was dark on light. Good thing I made a second version because that was the one my client chose.

Making the box was somewhat problematic. The top was made from picture molding and the rest from hand crafted poplar. I didn’t have the equipment or skills to create it so I had to find a picture framing willing to take the trouble on. No one wanted to do it. I finally found someone in Charleston willing to make a lid with a matching box because after conversing with him for some time we found that we had attended the same graduate school in New York and knew the same people. Connections and New York “bonding” always come in handy.

The box arrived from Charleston and although well crafted, needed something more in the way of finish. Once again, it turned out to be a wise choice to have my client look it over before I painted it. We decided that the interior needed to be refinished and painted, the inside lip and base sanded and coated with shellac. A final addition was four squares of vitreous glass on the base to raise the bottom of the box.

Before painting the box, I had to finish each side in the traditional way that icons were prepared - several coats of rabbit skin glue followed by several coats of cooked marble dust gesso - applied hot, then cooled and sanded between coats. Because it was a box instead of a flat panel, each side had to be prepared, dried, then turned to do the next side. The process made me recall why I had stopped making painted boxes some years ago. The final step was to seal the gesso with my home made ruby shellac - which added a nice golden glow to the gesso. My client approved of the as yet finished but unpainted box.

For subject matter, I chose images of wildflowers that were local to South Carolina as well as Carolina wrens. The wrens, however, I painted more gold than brown so that they looked a bit more like canaries - more in keeping with Piranesi. I used some rather pricey colors on this painted box; real lapis lazuli, turquoise, malachite green and sedona. This made the overall effect jewel-like and very much like a classical painting. The nice thing about painting small on a slick surface is that expensive pigments go a long way.

The commission finished, I can now turn to my haphazard, whatever inspires me art work.

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