Sunday, January 7, 2007

Self Portrait, A Finished Work In Progress

Self Portrait with Mask, Oil on Canvas, 24x36
started Summer 2005 - 'finished' January 2007

This is a self portrait that I did about a year and a half ago. I started it, left it for a while, worked on it again, left it for a long while swearing I would never return to it, started a blog, wrote about how I would never return to it, and have since worked on it. After reading my terrible excuses for not finishing it and several attempts at revising what I wrote to try to give the illusion that they weren’t excuses, I decided to try to fix what was haunting me instead of leaving it. Hindsight, and patience, have a funny way of helping. Here is an elongated brief description of my thoughts, ideas, frustrations, during the process:

First, the pretense:
When I started this painting, a few things in my immediate surroundings were really dragging me down. At that point, I had lost the confidence I used to have. I felt I had become an empty shell. This was reflecting in my work, but I didn’t know what was missing in it at the time. I needed to find my voice again. I spent time to think things through. This painting is an attempt to give voice to how I was feeling at that time.

The process:
I use a thick over thin process, with transparent layers in the darks using the medium Galkyd or Liquin, building the lights with thicker more opaque paint and less or no medium, but with clear layers of medium in between at times. The lay-in is essentially a drawing in paint using no medium (yet), scrubbing the drawing into the surface to roll the form, so that the values are worked out and ready to build up on. When applying each layer after the lay-in, the way in which the paint is applied should allow for the drawing to come through. Because of letting the paint show through in the layers, colors mix in a different way than in direct painting. What’s underneath influences the color that goes over it. Also, it’s important to have a dark palette underneath the paint so that what is being mixed on the palette appears the same as when it is on the painting.
In working on this painting, the beginning to middle went pretty smoothly as far as progression. There were issues with the initial lay-in in terms of likeness, but I felt confident I could tweak them as I built it up. The issues were small, and the thick over thin process allows for small maneuvers like pushing an edge slightly over when applying the next layer. But in all processes, changing your mind about the placement of a large part of the painting will require more work. I created more work for myself by changing the hand 3 times. This takes more than fudging an edge. It takes sanding and rebuilding. Because I use transparent layers for the darks and thicker opaque paint for the lights, if I move something, I need to build the paint back up again, not just paint building it thicker and thicker in areas that weren’t meant to be thick. This goes to show how taking the time in the initial drawing and really be certain of the concept, and how the concept is illustrated is very important. As I worked on it, new ideas came to me that I was more pleased with eventually, so I ended up sanding and rebuilding in that area.
- The first attempt showed both hands intertwined as if nervous (subtle storytelling, but too subtle, and not clear in the way that it was depicted, fingers looked jumbled, or as if it were one large hand with too many fingers)
- The second attempt had a very nicely rendered (but very contrived) hand holding brushes (contrived because it was basically a portrait of me standing there holding a bunch of brushes. It had lost the focus).
- This last attempt is what I consider most telling of me at that time as far as subjectmatter. My hand holds a mask as if the viewer has interrupted me as I have pulled the mask away from my face.

Then, I left it unfinished for about a year. I don’t have a good reason for that (besides being really busy, teaching, painting other paintings, yada yada yada, but those aren't in my definition of a good reason). For a long time, I wouldn’t show this painting because I didn’t feel that it represented me in the best way possible because the hand was not rendered to completion. In hindsight, I can see this as a double-edged excuse for not finishing it. I thought about cutting the canvas to trim the bottom portion completely off, and showed it on my website like this for most of the year: Since I started to write this blog, I have worked on the hand and mask again, and also a bit in the head too, giving more texture to the lights, and softening some of the sharp edges and contrast between the forehead and hair.

Regarding the storytelling:
- Changing the activity of the hands helped tell the story I wanted to tell about that moment, and it speaks from where I was speaking from at that moment.
Regarding the focus:
- As far as storytelling goes, the face should read as the focal point, and the secondary focal point the mask being held by the hand. The secondary focal point should support the primary focal point, and not compete with it.
- The two previous attempts at the hands were too sharp and in focus to be secondary, and too light in value. So the two areas were competing.
- The face has a story on its own, as everyone’s face does (unless you delete or airbrush out every detail that tells their story). The expression and the mouth in shadow show that, even though I had come to a point where I was somewhat ready to unveil my true self (by removing the mask from my face), I was still uncertain of my own voice (the shadow over my mouth).

Regarding the word ‘finish’:
- Don’t fall into the thinking that finishing something means it has to be rendered to the nth degree. …(this is a reminder to myself)…
- It can be called finished when the story is told.
- Find the balance.

Writing all of this has made me decide to finish it.