Still Life

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Homemade still life

I am currently enjoying a short, very short break from work in what I call my other life and am taking advantage of this brief respite bonding with my sourdough starter and my oven. Not exactly the time of year to be working with sourdough cultures, the cold season and all, but I´ve had this mother starter since the summer of ´11 and I just have to refresh it to make it come alive again before I use it.The whole process can take a few days, from start to finish, but it is precisely this long process of nurturing and handling and waiting that appeals to me since it is the antithesis of what we have all gotten used to in our instant, 10 mb per nano-second, at-the-swipe-of-a-finger culture. I like the idea of making something in the exact same way it used to be made 200 years ago, and the product, if it turns out the way you want it to, is, for me, just as much to behold as it is to consume. When it comes out good. Half the time I´m not happy with the result. So many parallels with painting, this bread making thing.

Here are some sourdough boules from these past days. After many months of trial and error, I´ve settled on and have been using for quite some time now a dough recipe actually developed for pizza by Jeff Varasano, a pizza guru whose recipe is all over the Internet and can be found here. I pretty much follow it to the letter but have varied it only slightly by using more sourdough starter and adjusted the other weights accordingly.

...And this is how the crumb turned out.

...and a couple more. I use a dutch oven inside my gas oven to bake the bread in as I like the way the heat seems to work better in this system. Any serious bread maker knows this trick, especially when one doesn´t have access to strong wood-fired ovens. The resulting color of the crust is much more even, for one thing, and the crust itself is much better. 

....and then, I decided it was time to paint a still life of bread using bread that I had made -- something I´ve been wanting to do for a long time now and have finally found the time to do it. A sort of homage to my sourdough boule before consuming it. To my Spanish friends: "yo me lo guiso, yo me lo como", right? Anyway, here it is:

...this is what the set up looked like in the studio. The December sunlight I have to work with in my studio with its northeast-facing window is quite fugitive and I had to work quickly. Also, I didn´t want the bread going to waste.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Van Dyck Show

...Anthony, that is. This is the current exhibit going on at the Prado. Flemish painting fans take note!
 It will run till the third of March, so if you´re in the vicinity and have the inclination....
You can read about it here.

And, in keeping with the season and with this artist´s show, I´ve chosen this exquisite study....
He makes drawing with a quill pen and wash seem so easy.

My best wishes to everyone...!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Diego´s long shadow

Hands down, by a million miles, on his worst day--maimed, blind and crippled, Diego Velazquez is the  painter par excellence and has always been and will always be the painter´s painter. When you look at this artist´s work up close, within inches from your eyes, and you can tilt your head and try and look against the light so you see the thickness of a particular brushstroke laid so eloquently, effortlessly, and sublimely over the 350 year-old linen; or when you contemplate the many thin, transparent, almost watercolor-like paint marks placed strategically, intuitively, juxtaposed against the impasto in such a way that makes you think: "of other way would have worked..."; and when you see his "on second thoughts" about a certain passage and are able to analyze how he dealt with that particular "error" and you try to console yourself in your ineptness and say to yourself "so, he made mistakes too" and realize just after you´ve had that thought that his biggest mistakes would have been your most fantastic achievements in your wildest dreams (and so you´re back to feeling inept) just makes you want to drop everything, wondering why you ever even thought of taking up painting in the first place. At least it´s what happens to me...

There have been volumes written about this artist´s work and life; nothing that I could write here would be new or eye-opening and so I merely wanted to focus on a lesser-known work of his and just let the reader look and admire with quiet reverence for a few moments.

My initial reaction whenever I´ve looked at this piece has always been one of startle, a sudden mild shock, as of one who was not expecting to bump into anyone when he turned around. The way the head occupies the space around it; the air around the head -- one can almost imagine the damp, cold, musty atmosphere of the room--so still and austere in its grayness; the look in the eyes of the sitter: so frank, so unassuming, so unpretentious, probably completely unaware of the greatness of the genius that is observing him and recording him on canvas. Real, natural, almost present here and now...timeless.

Technically, the so-called "Pope´s Barber" is flawless, exquisite. So deceivingly simple in its execution, bereft of any superfluous apparatus, its amazing achievement is how the painter has been able to take such a simple, seemingly nondescript model and transform him into something of sublime beauty that establishes a special relationship with the viewer more than 350 years later...

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Juan Carlos Martínez Moy an immensely talented sculptor I´ve met recently. We´ve coincided working in the same facilities several times this year and I´ve enjoyed strolling over to his work area to watch him work during the brief moments of pause from my tasks. From our little chats, I´ve learned that he was born in Cádiz but has lived in Madrid for many years that he no longer has any trace of the southern accent. He learned the art of modelling and sculpting formally and, as is evident in his work, this has been central to his life. He is intense and passionate when speaking of his craft and about art in general and yet very selfless in offering help or advice to others,  always willing to drop whatever he is doing at any given moment to lend a hand. Here he is at work on a clay figure of approximately 75% life-size.

And here is the finished figure, out of which will come a resin statue which will then be hand painted.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Workshop with Amaya Gurpide

Last July, while working on the repeat monster panel, I had the privilege of attending a figure painting workshop with Spanish painter Amaya Gurpide in her studio in Madrid in the evenings. You can read about the career of this young woman in her website, but in a (really small) nutshell, aside from her training here in Spain, she has also honed her skills studying in the traditional atelier method in New York´s Grand Central Academy as well as the Arts Students´ League.  It was a fantastic opportunity for me to absorb knowledge from her as it was to share the 4 weeks in her studio with 5 other young artist students of the Escuela Superior de Dibujo Profesional here in Madrid, where Amaya is a faculty member. She is a talented, indefatigable and selfless teacher, always willing to help and explain with great patience. The experience was well worth the time...

The workshop centered on drawing and painting the figure, focussing mainly on how to exploit values to define and round out the form. After several sessions dedicated to drawing the model in front of us where we were taught/reminded how to "see" and look at the figure, we went on to painting the model in oil, using string of 9 pre-mixed values which were used for the underpainting layers and which were later adjusted in chroma and temperature by using a very limited palette of 6 colors. Perhaps I´ve summarized the process, and there is a lot more to it than what I´ve said here, I hope Amaya doesn´t pull her hair in frustration reading this...

Here is what our palette looked like:

The lower string is the pre-mix of nine values used for skin tones, and you can see the row of 6 colors in the upper row: white (preferably lead white), yellow ochre, cadmium red, raw umber, ultramarine (or cobalt) blue, and ivory black. All you need, really, for just about anything.

And here is a detail of my result after 8 sessions. My hat is off to our model, so utterly professional and patient, and full of good cheer even when she was understandably exhausted.

Another 3 sessions would have been perfect to finish off the painting.  Here is what the whole canvas looked like. It measures 41 x 33 cms. You can see the different phases of underpainting in the mid-section and the lower extremities. It is only the portion shown in the previous photo that I consider complete with all the values corrected, the forms rounded out and the color temperature more or less correct.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Five months later...

I´ve been so conscious about the almost five month lull since the last post that I´ve just been hoping no one has come to visit this blog to notice my inactivity. "Inactivity" is actually the antithesis of what´s been going on...
After the initial installation of my monster panels in Sta. Comba, a problem arose in the second panel that required a solution. The solution being nothing short of repeating the panel...well, half the panel. The lower half. The one with all the figures.
Long story short, I re-painted it changing some details (I decided to include some friends as Apostles and change the color of Christ´s robe) and we finally installed the re-done half in the church last August 23rd.
Here is the panel in the workshop upon completion.  

...and this is how the whole altarpiece now looks. At first glance, the only difference is the color of Christ´s robe. It is only upon closer comparison that the other faces become evident as well as the treatment of the foreground, having added the Roman pavement and changed the large rock on the lower right somewhat. All in all, I am much happier with this second version -- there seems to be better overall chromatic harmony now and the predominant lines in each panel seem to converge towards the centerpiece more as well. I don´t know, just something I notice...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

In the province of La Coruña

...lies the town of Santa Comba, about 35 kms northwest of Santiago. My monster panels were finally installed in the church of San Pedro in the center of this town. The simple, austere church was built in the 50s (I was told) and is of a modern design with a single aisle down the center and pews on the left and right. It seems wider than it is deeper, and the sanctuary area only used to  hold a large Crucifix on a blank, white wall. I had to go over and do the final touches and retouches after the installation of the panels which took two whole days. This is what the two paintings look like in situ:

...and a couple of shots of the retouching in progress. Shouldn´t be afraid of heights anymore after this, I guess...

Santiago is one of my favourite cities in Spain, lovely at night when it rains...

Monday, April 16, 2012

Eduardo Rosales another Spanish great from the 19th century.
Born in 1836 in Madrid, he completed this painting at 28 years of age while in Rome in 1864 and entered it in the National Exhibition of Spain in the same year where it garnered a first prize medal. The scene represents  Isabel the Catholic Queen dictating her last will and testament. The Queen is shown on her death bed with King Ferdinand seated on the left and next to him stand their daughter Juana (the fututre "Mad" queen from the previous 19thC painting posts) and on the right are various members of the court.

Aside from the obvious mastery and handling, what rivets the viewer most is the way the artist has captured the various expressions of the characters involved, leaving no doubt as to the gravity of the implied consequences of the imminent demise of the Queen, and the uncertainty of the future of the kingdom. All of this is manifest especially in the King´s face as well as the Princess´, heir to her
mother´s heavy responsibilities.

As usual, as I tend to gravitate towards the initial ideas of the artist, what I consider the primordial instinct of expression, of equal interest is the charcoal with white chalk compositional study. The initial idea was to place the figure of the King on the right, next to the scribe, and leaving the figure of Juana alone on the left. The final composition shows a more balanced distribution of figures, avoiding the "redundancy" of the double-seated figures that appear in the drawing. I find particularly exquisite the standing profile figure of Juana on the left with her downturned eyes and her hands clasped in front of her...reminds me somewhat of Vermeer´s milkmaid of a little more than 200 years before.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Finished panels

This is how the second panel turned out. There were a few changes that had to be made with respect to the original oil study, mainly the addition of three more apostles (actually, 2 full figures and one head) as well as some modification to the landscape background. The two figures on each end (the kneeling and the standing one, both with their backs to the viewer) were added as I went along, because of time constraints I was not able to make any initial studies for them. Also, the rather large rock on the lower right corner was a last minute addition, a sort of reference to the whole scene that the painting represents: petrus, kephas, "rock"...

...and this is how the original oil study looked like, with a much more arid landscape , with a lot less greenery:

The monster twins look like this side by side. They will be installed inversely in the church, flanking a large, already existing Crucifix centerpiece. Sorry about the obstruction on the right. Sometimes it´s just impossible to move large, heavy pieces out of the way.

...and finally, a couple of parting shots: I could get used to working at these heights...


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Aside from Velázquez, Goya and El Greco...

When visitors come to the Prado for the first time (or the second or third), they invariably come to see The Greats: Velázquez, El Greco, Goya etc...No doubt good choices. There are few things as artistically uplifting or enlightening, or timeless  as standing in front of pieces like Velázquez´ Las Hilanderas: looking at that dingy workshop, you can smell that stale air and imagine the bodily odors from the women working busily. Or his Cristo de San Plácido: you  gawk at that pale white Torso glistening with sweat, so gracefully limp and dead. You begin to appreciate the Sevillian´s great understanding of anatomy and wonder how easy he makes it look and how difficult it really is. "Cockroach" is the word that always comes to my mind--because that´s what I feel like next to him.
El Greco´s unique use of colour is also something that the visitor walks away with. I remember copying an El Greco once in the museum and breaking my head over what his procedure might have been because I saw neither rhyme nor reason in his use of colour and yet everything made sense.
Of course the other Spanish giants of The Golden Age are all up there calling out to us from the past, quietly teaching us all how we should do it.
But today I wanted to focus on the "lesser known" Spanish greats from the 19th century. On two painters and a sculptor in particular. There was a whole generation of such artists from the 1830s to the 1920s and perhaps this could be the first of several posts dedicated to these figures in art history. They are all products of a great classical academic tradition which has now been having  it´s own renaissance in the present day ateliers that adhere to the same academic tenets and methods of teaching.

José Casado del Alisal (1832-1886)
Francisco Pradilla (1848-1921)
Josep Llimona (1864-1934)

 La Campana de Huesca (1880, Jose Casado del Alisal)
 Few paintings have achieved the drama and visual impact that this canvas slaps you in the face with when you encounter it in front of you. Its enormous dimensions (356cms x 474 cms or 11 1/2 ft x 15 1/2 ft) and the scene that is represented allow the canvas to impose itself on you and hold your attention for sometime. In a nutshell, the story it represents is the 12th C event in history when the then king of Aragon, Ramiro II, upon learning of a conspiracy against him by some of his vassals, decides to teach them a lesson and decapitate 15 of them and arrange their heads in a circle with the head of their leader hanging from a rope in the center of the circle thus forming a sort of bell (hence the title Camapana de Huesca) that was supposed to "ring throughout Aragon as a warning to other possible traitors" and show off this macabre display of crude dictatorship to the other vassals that had been invited to the castle.
Overlooking the obvious gore, one can focus on the mastery of execution -- from composition to the handling of colour and the treatment of surface texture to expression in both facial and bodily gesture. Breathtaking attention to his rendering of fabric, metal and granite...


 Doña Juana la Loca (1877, Francsico Pradilla)

Painted when he was 29 years old, living in Rome as a student subsidized by the Spanish Academy. This piece was his third submission to the Academy as part of the terms of subsidy required that the artist paint a certain number of paintings of a certain size in return for the allowance that was awarded as part of the "scholarship". Also of enormous dimensions (340 cms x 500 cms or 11 ft. x 16 ft.) like the Camapana de Huesca, Pradilla´s painting focuses on the demented 16th C queen of Spain, Juana, daughter of Isabel and Fernando and mother to the future Carlos I. She is jealously and obsessively guarding the coffin of her recently departed husband King Philip the Handsome as it makes  its way to its final resting place in Granada. Another example of supreme mastery of the narrative apart from the captivating naturalist style that Pradilla (as well as his contemporaries) was known for. This is a piece that involves more than the sense of sight as it also makes the viewer aware of the smell of the smoke rising from the embers; the feel of the cold, December wind blowing across the empty expanse of land; and you can even hear the awkward silence being kept by the entourage as they grow bored by the whole trip forced on them by their mad Queen. Up close, the surface quality of the paint and the masterful painterly brushstrokes are right up there with the rest of the Giants of the Prado.

Desconsuelo (c. 1907. Josep Llimona)

I must admit I am not too familiar with this sculptor´s biography or his career. But there is really  no need for words when confronted with something as eloquent and poignant as this marble piece. An exquisite handling of the feminine form, the sensuous, perfect figure is able to transmit an overwhelming feeling of grief and loss without showing the viewer what can only be assumed to be an equally perfect, beautiful countenance ravished by sadness.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Moving Along

This is how the work progressed this past week. Still trying to juggle this with my other life. All the underpainting has been completed and I have reworked the sky, adding the clouds, and the final gradation of the blue. I do plan to modify those clouds a bit more...


Around Me

...I have all these extremely talented, hardworking, down-to-earth artists, artisans, craftsmen... Hopefully some of what they have will rub off.  Osmosis. I guess I am glad because I found dinosaurs like me. We are still around. Quietly doing our thing.

The liturgical arts.
Centuries´old profession.
In spite of all the high-tech aid there is now available, at the end of the day, it still all boils down to the
hand and the craft.

The photos speak for themselves. Perhaps on another occasion I will speak more at length about the process, materials and other details.

Food for thought

Been thinking about food....up on the scaffold, in my car while on the road, pretty much everywhere...
Basic food one can to warm the heart.
I´ve stopped trying to analyze why the penchant for homemade food. Needed a hobby. The best ones are the ones you can eat. So there. Of course it´s easier to just buy. Infinitely. But it tastes better when you make it. Infinitely.
Homemade pasta... spinach tagliatelle...easier than you think. YouTube can be a good school for simple stuff. And the tomato sauce that went with it was easy as well. No, not San Marazano. Our tomatoes here are just as good. Hope my Italian friends will not scoff at this last comment.

The cheese was sheep´s milk. My first attempt at a rennet-set cheese. I let it age in the fridge about 2 weeks. I have a long way to go with  the cheese-making thing. So it´s now in the back burner...or somewhere...

Aside from the obvious correlation between this and painting, you know, sensual appeal--the eyes, the smells, touch, etc... there is the more basic, primordial instinct that usually is the link that joins art and gastronomy. 
And how much heart is put into the making of each is immediately evident in the result.

A very interesting book on the two subjects. I believe there is a recipe for ali-oli in this book that uses 7 or 8 cloves of garlic, if I´m not mistaken.... Like I said, "...the smells..."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Continuing the Twin

It was quite a task trying to level off the ridges created by the edges of the fiber glass strips in such a way that the strips would not be visible from a distance. Using an orbital sander, I sanded down the edges pretty much all the way down to the board-- tiny, nano particles of fiber glass flying all over the place and getting on my skin...this was before the first layer of primer and then again after the first layer had dried. Anyway, I think it did the job -- several layers of primer later and from a decent distance of about 8 meters off, the strips are no longer visible.

That´s M in front of the panel, one of the workers in the plant. I asked him to pose for the photo to give the thing some scale.
And yesterday, the initial outline in a wash of burnt umber...
...and the underpainted sky (clouds will come in later, in the painting, at least...seems like real clouds have been avoiding the Madrid area all "winter" long)...

...feel quite privileged to have this view from my work station...

A few more notes from the quiet moments...