8. Making Lace

This is the last entry in a set of three. The series began with blog post #4 “Start, Then Stop,” followed by post #7 “Endless Beginnings,” and concludes here with some perfectly reasonable thoughts followed by a fever dream.


In formal terms, the “start” of an alla-prima painting is simple – it consists of simplified shapes and simplified colors.

But if you expect the finished painting to match the complexity of what you’re observing in reality, the simplicity of the start becomes a challenge. It requires that you think in reverse: from the complexity of the scene you are observing to the simplified version of it you want to block onto your blank surface.

Here’s an example, done on location by the LA River:

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Oil on paper, 4.5 x 6 in.

As a student of this technique, you’re told to practice doing a lot of these: starts which you leave unfinished. But boy, is that hard. Once you get started, it’s not only agonizing to put on the brakes, it’s agonizing to know when to put on the brakes. There’s no clear point where the start ends and the rest of the painting begins, because one flows right into the other. That’s what makes the start such an elusive thing to study: it’s always obliterated, absorbed into the viscous body of the painting as it evolves. Still, there are places where a seam in that flow is sometimes visible. One of those places is the sky-hole.

Which brings me to trees, and an encounter with them late one afternoon while on an outing to the idyllic Ojai valley, north of LA.

Scenic overlook; September, 2019

“Sky-holes” are those gaps in foliage where the sky (or whatever happens to be behind the trees) shows through. You can see them in the upper edge of the very dark bank of trees above. I’ve always found them fascinating in the work of other artists, from whatever era, and a secret subject of museum visits. There are so many ways to produce them. Sky color and foliage color can be applied in the same layer, side-by-side. Sky color can go underneath (as part of the “start”) with foliage color laid on top. Or, counter-intuitively, foliage color can be applied first as a solid layer, with sky color applied in patches on top of that. As long as the paint is opaque, any order will work.

These are all simple options, but significant. Why? The “truth” in nature is that the sky is furthest back; it’s the background. Therefore, logic would dictate that it should be the foundation layer in a painting too – the start. But it doesn’t have to be. There are at least two other options, both of which also work perfectly well. Which means that a realistic effect does not have to be logical; it does not have to conform to the logic of what common sense knows to be true.

I find this to be a big deal. In fact, I find it thrilling. For me, something about the mystery of art, and the mystery of beauty, is encoded in that fact. So much so, that it makes me wonder if the lace-like design of foliage against sky might not be more than just a lyrical condition, but might be the key to a whole way of painting or thinking about painting, one where the entire surface of a painting functions like the frame across which lace-makers stretch their work, and where all painting might be considered a kind of lace-making.

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Ruskin lace: a process that includes embroidery and other decorative needlework.

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In a “lace painting,” films of paint would be punctured by other films of paint, in the way leaf masses are pierced by light. Solid forms, then, become aggregated fragments, like congested masses of leaves, that have squeezed other colored layers out – they are not independent entities. In this vision, fragments would be the dominant, baseline condition, not solids.

Which means that time would be programmed into that condition. Time in the painting would be understood as “this layer is underneath – it came first,”  “this layer is on top – it came later.” But the order of  that “first,” then “later” wouldn’t have to follow the same sequence across the whole surface, and it wouldn’t have to correspond to what appears to be in front of or behind other things in the illusion. The surface of a painting could be like code, but instead of zeros and ones or ciphers (or musical notes or alphanumeric notation for that matter), you would have areas of paint that are “above” and areas of paint that are “below,” like the threads in a woven textile which rise to the surface or dive below neighboring threads.

But to function as a code, those areas of paint must produce a message – that’s the image, the depiction, the representation. And that’s critical; if the woven code is produced for its own sake, it becomes abstraction. Abstract design may or may not also send a message, but it just happens to not be the kind of information I’m seeking. Representation puts a particular kind of pressure on the system, drives it to a communication that is outside of the mechanisms of the signal. That being said, it also serves as a regulating mechanism. The representation (or message) sets up a limited arena within which the play of signals is put under tension, and becomes charged.

Still, if one could think about it this way, a painting wouldn’t just be representing reality. It wouldn’t be passive. It would be active – more like a model, really, than a representation. Something with its own facticity, constitution, and operations, which happen to parallel (but not overlap) the facticity, constitution, and operation of that original scene which you, the painter, were looking at.

But that’s the fever dream, which came much later. Here is the actual sketch I turned out that sun-drunk afternoon:

Oil on panel, 6 x 8 in.
Stuart Canyon Creek, Ojai

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