Common Grave: A Painting Project – continued

Part II: The Composition and the Process

As I mentioned in my previous post, a ‘cult of devotion’ developed around the skulls and bones found in the Fontanelle cemetery. It is very much a religious, or at least ‘cultic’ site. And why not? Why shouldn’t all these remains, representing the lives of real human beings, our own ancestors — figuratively if not literally — be accorded some respect, perhaps even veneration?
I’m quite fond of the medieval and early renaissance art form of the altar piece. One of my favorite examples of this art form is the Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528), presently housed in the Unterlinden museum in Colmar, France.

Isenheim altarpiece, panel depicting resurrected Christ, By Grunewald, retable d'Isenheim - http://www.eldritchpress.org/jkh/gr7.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93700
Isenheim altarpiece, panel depicting resurrected Christ, By Matthias Grünewald. Source: http://www.eldritchpress.org/jkh/gr7.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93700

Such altarpieces typically depict scenes from the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary or the lives of various saints.
Why not instead create a sort of altarpiece honoring ordinary people? One devoted to these unknown dead whose remains fill up a giant cave in Naples? That’s the origin of my idea to create a six panel polyptych. Basically it consists of three pairs of paintings — a double triptych.
In my conception, the square paintings join together creating one central image that is 40 inches across.

The two central panels form one image. The watercolor mock-up shows the layout of the complete composition.

These two square paintings form the central panel, and are flanked by two pairs, each of which consists of a 20×24 inch panel and a 20 x 16 inch panel, thus also equalling 40 inches across.

So that is the basic layout of the piece.

The process.

Having many, many reference photos to choose from, I needed to settle upon a limited number from which to work. I narrowed it down to five different photos I took in 2013.
Creating the paintings involved a somewhat painstaking process of preparing the ground, creating cartoon drawings on newsprint, transferring these drawings onto canvas and then, finally, painting.
This process worked fairly well, but it was time consuming. Numerous interruptions made it even more time-consuming!

The ground:
I experimented with using a colored ground on the canvas, instead of just starting with a white gesso canvas. Yellow ochre was used to create a luminous yet earthy yellow base for the paintings.

Yellow ochre ground applied to canvases

Once all canvases were treated with the yellow ochre, I could begin transferring the cartoons (hand drawn outlines of the images) from newsprint to the canvas.

Working on the cartoon for panel III.
Tracing the cartoon for panel II
Tracing results on the canvas!

This involved a slow process of tracing and retracing the images by hand. Once the outlines were in place on the canvas, actual painting could begin.

Applied cartoons ready for paint!

This is the fun part, and also the scary part. Moving from the realm of imagination to a completed piece in the real world is fraught with difficulties. In their excellent book, Art & Fear (1993), David Bayles and Ted Orland describe this very well. It’s worth quoting at length:

“Imagination is in control when you begin making an object. The artwork’s potential is never higher than in that magic moment when the first brushstroke is applied, the first chord struck. But as the piece grows, technique and craft take over, and imagination becomes a less useful tool. A piece grows by becoming specific. … the first few brushstrokes to the blank canvas satisfy the requirements of many possible paintings, while the last few fit only that painting — they could go nowhere else. The development of an imagined piece into an actual piece is a progression of decreasing possibilities, as each step in execution reduces future options by converting one — and only one — possibility into reality. Finally, at some point or another, the piece could not be other than it is, and it is done.”

Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. The Image Continuum, Santa Cruz, CA, 1993. pp. 15-16)
Panel II in process

I started with the middle panels, III and IV, then moved to the other pairs.

Panel I, completed in 2020.
Panel V, completed in 2020.
Panel II, completed in 2020

As I write this, panel VI remains incomplete, and my current task is to move it into reality! Wish me luck!

Panel VI, at an early stage of the painting process.

Common Grave: A Painting Project

Part I: How it all started

In January 2013, I had the good fortune of visiting the Fontanelle Cemetery – “Il cimitero delle Fontanelle (in napoletano, ‘e Funtanelle)” in Naples, Italy. This fantastic cemetery — really an ossuary — a repository of tens of thousands of human remains, is one of the more unique and bizarre attractions in an ancient city full of the unique and bizarre.
It appears that Fontanelle got its start in the early 16th century when neighborhood churchyards in the city, the preferred location for burials, were overflowing with the deceased. Older bodies were moved to an artificial cave carved into the volcanic bedrock of the Neapolitan hills, then just beyond the city limits.

At the entrance to the Fontanelle Cemetery, January 2013.

These bodies were added to over the succeeding centuries: plague victims found their final resting place here along with those too poor for a proper burial.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the cave was an unsightly, disgraceful mess. In 1872, Father Gaetano Barbati had the remains organized and a small church was constructed at the entrance to the cave.
A cult of devotion sprung up around the skulls and bones, reaching its apogee by the mid-20th century. Feeling that the whole thing had descended into fetishim, Cardinal Ursi of Naples closed it down in 1969. It remained closed until the 21st century.
Fortunately, it was restored and reopened. What restorations were actually undertaken, I don’t know. When I visited in early 2013, the remains appeared as if untouched for decades.

Inside Fontanelle
Human remains as objects of devotion

I must have taken hundreds of photographs (digital photography just makes this too easy), and soon conceived a desire to make art from my experience. Following a long period of gestation, I finally began working on my Common Grave polyptych toward the end of 2017. The first two canvases were completed by mid-2018.

Panel III of the polyptych, the first completed, mid-2018 (but not yet signed until all the panels are complete).
Common Grave, panel IV, oil on canvas.

Further delays ensued, but finally I am on the verge of completing the project. My plan is to have this project complete in time for this year’s Gowanus Open Studios.

Common Grave, panels III and IV together on the easel, summer 2018.

Coming Next: details of the project and final steps.

Pinhole research – December chill

I’ve recently started up again with some explorations in digital pinhole photography.  How this works is: you take a digital SLR, take off the lens and replace it with a modified body cap that serves as the ‘pinhole.’  (I don’t recall where I purchased the pinhole cap, but if you Google ‘digital pinhole – Nikon‘ you’ll probably find it quickly).  Your camera needs to be sophisticated enough to have all manual settings — and most importantly, the ability to manually hold the shutter open — it’s called ‘bulb’ on my Nikon.

My old Nikon D-60 equipped with a pinhole body cap I found somewhere on the Internet. The cap is just an ordinary body cap with a hole drilled in it, covered with some film with a tiny transparent spot in the middle.

Shooting pinhole is a very different experience, and I imagine it is closer to what the earliest photographers experienced.  It requires patience and a great deal of practice.

One difficulty is that I can’t really get a good view through the viewfinder of what the shot is going to be.  It takes some practice to aim the camera body in the right direction.  Since the shutter needs to be open for a good 5, 10, 15, 20 seconds or more, one needs to be really immobile (a tripod or monopod helps).

Digital pinhole also suffers from the problem of dust on the sensor: something that wouldn’t normally happen with film pinhole technology, since each frame of film is virgin.  The digital ‘film’, i.e., the sensor, is hardly a virgin, as it gets used over and over again, and my Nikon is pretty filthy at this point.  Photoshop is a huge help at this juncture!

Prospect Park, December 2016. Digital pinhole photograph, liberally cleaned up and tweaked in Photoshop and Lightroom. A fun, ‘painterly’ process, but entirely digital.

Shooting this way is a [potentially] meditative experience.  In a recent outing, I came up with a number of really interesting shots that I can then liberally work with in Lightroom and Photoshop — it really brings photography closer to painting — and for me, provides fascinating subject matter for oil paintings I want to realize. (See Lifeworld series).  So this pinhole outing is a form of visual research.

Below are a series of abstract detail shots that were all created from the full image shown above.

Pinhole zoom-crop experiment number 1.

Pinhole zoom-crop experiment #2

Pinhole zoom-crop experiment #3

Pinhole zoom-crop experiment #4.

Which of these should I use for a painting?

A new year well underway, Lifeworlds continues

Hello everyone from frigid New York City on this Valentine’s Day 2016!

I’ve been retooling my studio set-up and finally (last weekend) completed the firstsecond oil painting of 2016 (and the next in the Lifeworld series).  So here we have it:

Lifeworld 36, oil/mixed media on canvas, 20x20" (51x51cm), 2016
Lifeworld 36, oil/mixed media on canvas, 20×20″ (51x51cm), 2016

A detail shot of Lifeworld 36
A detail shot of Lifeworld 36

Lifeworld 36 continues the adventure. I’ve also been exploring the ever important topic of studio safety and reducing toxicity in oil painting.  I’ll write up more of my findings on that topic soon.  In the meantime, enjoy the paintings and stay warm!

The new painting on the easel chez moi
The new painting on the easel chez moi

*actually, the first oil painting of 2016 is this little sketch (below) – a trial balloon for a suite of paintings I’m planning that are inspired by the Fontanelle cemetery in Napoli, Italy.

A quick sketch to check out the new painting setup, January 2016
A quick sketch to check out the new painting setup, January 2016

The Lifeworlds Project

Lifeworlds is a long-range painting project I started in 2012.  The project started initially out of a desire to explore the square format in painting. The inspiration for this was not Instagram as one might easily suppose, but the square format Landscape paintings of Gustav Klimt.  I then chanced upon the evocative term “Lifeworld” in the philosophical writings of Edmund Husserl and from the confluence of these two streams the project was born.

"Lifeworld 1", oil on canvas, 20x20" (approx. 50cm2). Summer, 2012. The project starts here!
“Lifeworld 1″, oil on canvas, 20×20” (approx. 50cm2). Summer, 2012. The project starts here!

Now, three years into the project, Lifeworlds continues to evolve and develop. I decided early on that I would continue to make square format paintings under the title of “Lifeworld” until I felt that I had exhausted the possibilities of the format entirely.

In reality, the possibilities of this form may never be exhausted.  Therefore, I thought it best to put a cap on it: so the idea arose to work toward the completion of 108 paintings.

Lifeworld 14, oil on canvas, 20x20", 2013
Lifeworld 14, oil on canvas, 20×20″, 2013

Why 108? Those who know me and have followed my work for a while will also know of my interest in Buddhism, and the influence it’s had on my work.  108 is the number of prayer beads in the Buddhist japa mala (a Buddhist rosary). The number is given various meanings in Buddhist cosmology and additionally simply refers to any proverbial big number in the same way that a “myriad” (literally Greek for “10,000”) has come to stand in for anything large and virtually uncountable.  So, instead of making some infinite number of paintings, I will make 108 to represent that infinity.

Since one of the uses of a rosary or japa mala is to count repetitions of chants or prayers, a nice thing about the number 108 is that it emphasizes how the project becomes a kind of prayer or meditation on the artistic process, and on the artist’s relationship with his environment — what I’m calling a Lifeworld.

"Lifeworld 12" mixed media on canvas, 20x20", 2013.
“Lifeworld 12″ mixed media on canvas, 20×20”, 2013.

So, I see each Lifeworld as a snapshot of a particular state of mind formed when the artist encounters his subject. Although frequently quite abstract, each painting results from the process of observing my surroundings. The square is both the container for the composition and also one of its principal motifs.

As of this writing, the newest Lifeworld pieces are numbers 32, 33 and 34, all completed earlier this year.  The precise imagery continues to evolve and shift, all the while remaining within the parameters of the project: square format and 20″ x 20″ (around 51cm2 — 50.8cm to be exact) in size.

"Lifeworld 32", oil on canvas, 20x20in., 2015.
“Lifeworld 32”, oil on canvas, 20x20in., 2015.

"Lifeworld 33", oil on canvas, 20x20in., 2015.
“Lifeworld 33”, oil on canvas, 20x20in., 2015.

A small note about the size: there are a couple of early Lifeworlds, numbers 5 and 7, that are actually 24×24″ (60cm2).  I was still experimenting with the parameters at this stage; I may end up going back and redoing these to fit the program.

Lifeworld 7, oil on canvas, 24x24in., 2012.
Lifeworld 7, oil on canvas, 24x24in., 2012.

So a big project like this needs help, which leads me to …

How you can help:

A big project and entails certain tangible challenges to the artist (not to mention all the intangible challenges!), not least of which are the cost of materials, the cost of studio space (ever-increasing in New York City) and the potential storage costs (108 paintings take up a lot of space!).

So I’m reaching out to you — dear audience!  There are several ways you can help:

1. Lifeworlds are for sale! Some have sold already. Prices currently run from $800 to $1,200 for each painting.  If you would like to see or purchase a painting (or two or three), contact me.  I do hope to mount an exhibition of all or a selection of the paintings in the future — and how cool would it be for you to have a painting that you own in a major retrospective of my work!

2. I accept tips, donations, contributions … etc. If you’re not up to purchasing a painting at the present time, you can also contribute any amount (no matter how small) toward the project through Venmo (the best! No fees for you or me!) or by clicking the paypal donate button below.  The arts has always existed through the kind generosity of its patrons.




Wow, if you’ve read this far, I really appreciate your interest.  A brief outline of the project (as well as some images) is available on my website, and all of the Lifeworlds can be viewed together on my flickr account.  I’ll continue to post future developments here.  Stay tuned!

Lifeworld 2, oil on canvas, 20x20in., 2012.
Lifeworld 2, oil on canvas, 20x20in., 2012.

Project: 365

Back in October, I started a new, year-long project to document my ongoing practice of visual exploration.  I think of this exploration as central to the work of the artist.  I’m calling the project simply “365” and the end result (to the extent that a project like this ever ends) will be 365 small watercolors presented at this year’s Gowanus Open Studios, October 17-18.

I started the project on or about October 19, immediately after last year’s Open Studios, and we are now more or less at the six-month mark.  So I’m evaluating how the project is going and taking a first crack at formulating some sort of artist’s statement about the work.  I’m also beginning the arduous task of scanning some exemplars of the work.  I’m certainly not going to scan all 365 pieces I create!

365 exemplar from late 2014. Watercolor on paper, 4×6″ 

The project is bookended by the Open Studio event that happens each year in October.  I’ve taken part in Gowanus Open Studios every year since 2007, and I’ve often experienced it as the beginning and end of my artistic cycle.

So what goes on in my typical artist’s year?  This project seeks to outline just that.  It represents a year in the life of the artist — or in other words, a year of practice, process  and exploration.

Fantastical self-portrait, watercolor, 6×4″, February, 2015

As I said, all of the work created for this project is small (between approximately 3×5 inches and 8×8 inches) and all of the work is watercolor.  Included are portraits and self-portraits, improvised sketches and landscapes real and unreal, life-drawing, completely abstract work, flights of the imagination and studies for future larger paintings.  All stuff of which the artist’s practice is made.

365 pieces will be displayed in October, and all will be offered to the public on a “pay as you wish” basis.  Here are some exemplars of the work created so far. Mark your calendars now! Gowanus Open Studios 2015 is October 17-18.

December 2014, watercolor, approx. 4×4″ 

October, 2014

Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, late October, 2014

December 2014
December 2014

November 2014
November 2014

December 2014
December 2014

One last look back at winter …

Winter is decidedly on its way out in these parts, but I couldn’t resist giving it one last parting glance this afternoon as I reviewed some photos I shot near Ivoryton, Connecticut in late February.

I’ve been a photographer from an early age, at least since my grandmother passed along to me my grandfather’s old Leica, if not before.  I use photography as a research and compositional tool. Much of the inspiration for my paintings comes, directly or indirectly, from photographs I’ve taken of beautiful places.

I’ve just uploaded to my flickr account (and also Behance) a selection of 20 photos that capture the beauty of that winter day. Enjoy!

A snowy morning in the woods
A snowy morning in the woods

Studio Notes – paysage planétaire completed

This is the final installment of my series of posts following the progression of a painting I started at the beginning of January – a “paysage planétaire” inspired in part by the work of Ferdinand Hodler and other painters from that era.  So, in my last post, described the overpainting.  Earlier this week, I put the final touches on this and completed the piece.  It was a little touch and go there for a while, but I think it’s come out pretty well:

Paysage detail
Paysage detail

Paysage detail - beefed up the clouds a little bit.
Paysage detail – beefed up the clouds a little bit.

Just about done at this point.
Just about done at this point.

Paysage detail.
Paysage detail.

One of the final pieces is the signature.
One of the final touches is the signature.

So here it is, complete.  Took about a month.  Part of the time was waiting for the layers to dry.  Lately I’ve been experimenting with a more traditional medium (stand oil and oil of Spike Lavender) which works great but dries slowly.  These were the only additives (besides mineral spirits and a little linseed oil) used in this painting.

Paysage planétaire (Avalanche Pass), oil on canvas, 24x24", 2015
Paysage planétaire (Avalanche Pass), oil on canvas, 24×24″, 2015

Studio notes – paysage planétaire, continued

I’m getting a bit behind in my blogging. The month is fast rolling to its completion, I’ve got what feels like a hundred pots in the fire.

Among those, the “paysage planétaire” I started several weeks ago continues to evolve. Last week, the underpainting was complete and I worked on the blue areas – sky and water.  This evening I worked on everything else.

Paysage planétaire in progress, oil on canvas, 24x24"
Paysage planétaire in progress, oil on canvas, 24×24″

 

The painting is fast approaching completion.

Paysage planétaire in progress.
Paysage planétaire in progress.

Paysage detail
Paysage detail

As I said before, every painting is an experiment, an exploration.  I cannot yet say if this one is a happy experiment.  I also cannot say whether it is finished. It could be.  Any thoughts on this?

Paysage planétaire in progress, oil on canvas, 24x24"
Paysage planétaire in progress, oil on canvas, 24×24″