Posts Tagged ‘vintage signs’

Finding One’s Own Voice

July 30, 2013
Working till the Light Fades

Working till the Light Fades

The snow falls on no two trees alike, but the forms it assumes are as various as those of the twigs and leaves by the genius of the tree.  So one divine spirit descends alike on all, but bears a peculiar fruit in each.  The divinity subsides on all men, as the snowflakes settle on the fields and ledges and takes the form of the various clefts and surfaces on which it lodges.

Henry David Thoreau, Journal, January 30, 1841

I finally laid down the watercolor brush as the sun faded from my studio windows.  I have refused to work under house lights on this watercolor, and really hated to lose the natural light.  I felt that I still had so much energy and enthusiasm left in me to proceed.  I only hope that the appetite is still there when school ends tomorrow.

Relaxing over the Journal of Henry Thoreau, I was suddenly gripped by this text I’ve just posted.  As a high school teacher, I have tried for years to encourage my students to find their own voice, to seek their own path.  But what a powerful metaphor Thoreau uses here!  It certainly got my imagination going, the notion of inspiration couched differently in individuals.  Throughout my years as educator and artist, I have tried to avoid those cookie-cutter templates that hold the attention of public education and taste.  Those who know my work are aware of my deep admiration for the watercolor technique of Andrew Wyeth.  Yet I knew years ago that I did not want to set a course to “ape” Andrew Wyeth.  As a student of art history, I have always wanted to emulate particular features from a number of artistic heroes, rather than “channel” one.  I have always wanted to assemble techniques into some kind of a toolbox, and in the process, hope that some kind of “style” might eventually emerge that I could call my own, my own voice.

On the last blog I wrote about drybrush and my attempts to weave it over watercolor wash, hoping to find some kind of “musical” composition in the combination.  Today I want to address color.  In my years of studying Andrew Wyeth, I always wondered why his neutrals seemed more “lifelike” than mine.  Once I threw away my sepia, burnt umber, paynes gray, burnt sienna, etc., I found myself moving closer to what I wanted.  My palette has been very restricted over the past few years, working almost exclusively with primary colors.

close-up of bottle in progress

close-up of bottle in progress


This vintage sign from which I’m working measures 36″ across.  I’m getting lost in it, as I sit just a mere five feet from it in my studio, with the northern lights bathing it all every afternoon.  I’ve been mixing the brown pigments in the Coca-Cola bottle from a combination of Winsor Blue (Red Shade), Transparent Yellow and Winsor Red.  Three years ago, I would have been using sepia, burnt umber, raw umber, or something of that nature.  I’m fascinated to see these three colors meshing and watching the gradations occur as I add water.  Staring at the sign, I’m fascinated with the imagination of whomever painted this Coca-Cola bottle.  The right-hand side of the bottle neck is outlined in dark green, with an aqua pin-stripe on the inside, before transitioning into that warm brown “cola” color.  The highlighed facets of the bottle are warm gray, and there are plenty of pools of bright red flanking the cola-brown.  As I continue to explore the surface, I’m intrigued by all these aqua highlights that occur across the surface.  I’m also trying to solve the myriad of tones appearing in the abused part of the white surface of the sign.  It’s been hit with a shotgun blast, and there is much corrosion as well.  There are so many different values mingled among all that damage.  The drybrush and scrubbing of the surface here is presenting a different kind of a challenge than the myriad of details covering the bottle image itself.  The longer I play with my palette, experimenting with the color mixing, the more I feel like a mad scientist in his laboratory.  It all adds to the fun and intrigue of the studio.

I am fully aware, as I pursue this, that I am doing copy work, much like an electric guitarist covering someone’s else’s published music.  This just gives me all-the-more respect for the original creators who design works like the one I’m copying.  Perhaps one day I’ll create something original.  But for now, I am still training the eye.  I still recall my Art I teacher, Mr. Scucchi, telling us ninth-graders: “I am not here to teach you to draw.  I’m here to teach you to see.  If you can see it, you can draw it.”  I’m still working on the vision thing.  I recall with amusement something attributed to Paul Cezanne when he was praising his colleague Claude Monet: “Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye.”

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal because I feel that I am alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.


Returning to Watercolor after a Hiatus

July 27, 2013
Still Life Set Up in the Studio

Still Life Set Up in the Studio

Large Watercolor in Progress

Large Watercolor in Progress

I don’t play with Crazy Horse all the time.  You can’t wear it out.  You know, it’s like you can’t constantly be doing everything.  You have to give it a rest.  It’s like planting stuff.  You’ve got to let the field rest for a year.

Neil Young “American Masters” PBS

I did not intend to get away from watercoloring.  Several things entered my life the past couple of weeks.  Summer school got busier (my class has grown by one-third this second semester, accompanied by a chronic absenteeism that wasn’t happening the first term).  I also picked up my guitar again and played in a live gig that required some rehearsals.  Then an unforseen series of events led to my standing in my waders, waist-deep in Windmill Lake at the LBJ Grasslands, flyfishing for largemouth bass.  It had been too long since I last enjoyed that avocation, and I was very grateful for the experience.  I also have become friends with a remarkable guitarist, Reid Rogers ( who has me doing things with an electric guitar that I have never before accomplished.  Reading has also chewed into my lifestyle.  I took off three days to read Dan Brown’s Inferno, which then led me to Dante’s Divine Comedy.  I’m also reading The Andy Warhol Diaries.  And my mornings still begin with the Journals of Henry David Thoreau over a cup of coffee.

Texas temperatures are dreadful in the summer, so my garage Man Cave has been abandoned till probably October.  I brought my favorite vintage Coca-Cola sign into the house from the Cave, and set it up on an easel next to my northern light windows.  Behind it I positioned this gate that was a Father’s Day gift from a lovely friend.  The previous owner of the vintage sign sent me a photograph of it fronting an evergreen tree, so I am looking at that image on a computer and trying to paint it into the backdrop.

This watercolor is on a full sheet (22 x 28″) of 300-lb. D’Arches cold-press paper.  I usually don’t quake over a $20 sheet of paper, but since I hadn’t painted this large in over six months, and hadn’t painted at all since my last 8 x 10″ over a week ago, I felt somewhat timid as I approached this one early this morning.  Lacking the technical tools, I used a frying pan to draw the circle of the sign.  I had to re-draw the gate several times, fitting the sign to its dimensions in a satisfactory way to suit the composition.  Next came the odious task of all that masquing–so many bent, twisted wires, steel framework and scrollwork on the top.

Though I have been at this since 7:15 this morning (it’s 8:21 p.m. as I write this), I have never worked on it for more than forty-five minutes a session.  As I wrote earlier, I’m a little gun-shy since I hadn’t painted on this large of a scale for awhile.  I kept backing off from it and re-checking the proportions of the composition.  Like the carpenter who cuts once, measures twice, I kept erasing and redrawing the Coca-Cola bottle on the sign.  Since high school, I have found the drawing of bottles extremely difficult.  I constantly measured and put this bottle on a grid, to make sure the proportions lined up, and kept double-checking the symmetry of the opposing sides.  But I enjoyed every moment, truly.  During my breaks, I continued to read from Dante, Thoreau and Warhol.  And of course, I’m always scribbling in my own journal.

Once the masquing dried, I mixed a cool highlight for the leaves of the evergreen and began by spritzing the paper with a spray bottle and floating the light bluish-green pigments all over the gate.  Once it was dry, I used the Fine Line Resist Pen to draw the highlighted leaves.  Once that dried, I mixed a concoction of Winsor Green, Winsor Violet, Alizarin Crimson, Transparent Yellow, WInsor Blue (Green Shade) and Permanent Rose to make as-near-a-black as I could for the shadows in the tree.  I applied this liberally over all the tree, then sprinkled salt in it and used the spray bottle to break it up.  After all that dried (plenty of time to read today!) I came back and removed all the masquing, applied Transparent Yellow to some of the highlighed leaves, then rendered some of the twisted wire and metal gate framework.  I also did a tiny bit of work on the Coca-Cola bottle cap, and some staining of the damaged sign.

The light outside has gone away for the night, so I’m finished for now.  But I cannot wait to wake up to this again tomorrow.  Today has been splendid, with painting, reading, journaling, and guitar playing marking the time, all of it exquisite.  I actually feel that my breathing has slowed down somewhat.  And school doesn’t resume until Monday!

Thanks always for reading.  It’s nice to be back in this mode again.

Sunday Morning Solitude

December 30, 2012
Large Watercolor Still Life in the Works

Large Watercolor Still Life in the Works

Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.

Edward Gibbon

After retiring to bed long after midnight, I arose a little later this morning and couldn’t wait to re-enter the Cave.  The fried eggs and sausage just couldn’t cook quickly enough!  Coffee is brewed, I allowed myself the luxury of reading from the Journals of Henry David Thoreau (I’ll post that below), and I have now completed two hours in the Cave, loving the silence that envelopes me (even my cat is keeping still, as long as he can lay close by).

Now that I have some daylight streaming through the garage windows, the skillet has ceased being a silhouette.  It was nice to add some modeling to it.  I then went to the locking plate and doorknob below, and then the blistered paint of the door.  The Mobilgas sign I worked on after midnight last night (this morning, actually!) and I am still tinkering with the Barq’s Root Beer sign.  The circles are starting to expand concentrically as I try to find my way back to the perimeter which I darkened before I began the actual painting (the end is in the beginning, said Heraclitus and T. S. Eliot).

I have turned to this blog, because I was warmed by the thought (as I was working in absolute silence–44 degrees outside means the neighbors are not working in their yards or getting into their cars to go somewhere) that I have an environment of silence and solitude that allows me to paint at my leisure–no deadlines, appointments or meetings until January 8.  Realizing that this could go on for another week warmed me all over.  I have always dreamed of this kind of space and time, and I don’t recall it ever happening, except perhaps that year in 1987 when I worked on a doctoral dissertation and did little else, living far out in the country of north Texas.  It is a nice sentiment.  If I live long enough to retire, maybe I’ll know more of this kind of life.  But for now, I’ll accept the gift.

I close with something I read this morning from Thoreau’s Journal.  A most unusual thought:

Unless we meet religiously, we profane one another.  What was the consecrated ground round the temple, we have used as no better than a domestic court.

Our friend’s is as holy a shrine as any God’s to be approached with sacred love and awe.  Veneration is the measure of Love.  Our friend answers ambiguously, and sometimes before the question is propounded, like the oracle of Delphi.  He forbears to ask explanation, but doubts and surmises darkly with full faith, as we silently ponder our fates.

In no presence we are so susceptible to shame.  our hour is a sabbath, our abode a temple, our gifts peace offerings, our conversation a communion, our silence a prayer.  In profanity we are absent, in holiness near, in sin estranged, in innocence reconciled. 

Thanks for reading.

Detailing the Still Life and Enjoying Kindred Spirits

December 30, 2012
Large Still Life in Progress

Large Still Life in Progress

That night there was a party to welcome us at the Casino, just a small party, the MacLeishes, the Murphys, the Fitzgeralds and we who were living at the villa.  No one drank anything stronger than champagne and it was very gay and obviously a splendid place to write.  There was going to be everything that a man needed to write except to be alone.

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Temperatures have fallen to 27 degrees, I’m huddling closer to the space heater, and finding joyous communion with kindred spirits tonight.  I am halfway through Part 2 of the video lecture of Joseph Campbell on James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  And I have been intermittently “tagged” by phone calls, emails, text messages, blog responses and Facebook comments while working tonight.  I thought I was going to be alone in the studio, but such has not been the case, and the company has been most welcome.  Thanks, all of you!

I really want to get up to my elbows in rendering this frying pan, but I cannot get good light on it in the studio tonight. It has a different look that I prefer during the daylight hours, so I guess I’ll have to leave it alone until the day comes.  Meanwhile, I suppose I’ll keep chipping away at the two rustic signs hanging on the door, and re-working the shadows cast.

Thanks for reading.

We Have Everything You Need at the General Store

October 24, 2011

Crockett General Store

Henry David Thoreau withdrew to Walden Pond.  David Hume convalesced at a cottage near La Fleche College.  This past weekend, I had the exquisite privilege of retreating to rural Crockett, Texas.  Two lovely new friends granted me access to this remote, remade “country store.”  The signs are real–no replicas will be found inside or outside this rustic structure.  Stepping inside will take you back to the 1950’s rural general store.  Even the front screen door slaps shut with a sharp sound if you release it.  Inside I gazed forever at all the products lining the shelves that I recalled from childhood.  The only element missing was a cluster of farmers sitting on rockers, whittling long sticks with their pocket knives and swapping stories and local news items.

I set up an easel outside on my second day in the country, right after a sweet, cleansing rain.  I enjoyed the cool moist winds and the smells of the neighboring pastureland, and listened to conversations emanating from within the store while I worked at this plein air watercolor.

Today I’m back at school.  Progress grades are due online by midnight tonight.  The class schedule was that dreaded four-class day in four different classrooms on two floors.  Already I’m tired, despite a restful weekend.  But the day’s drudgery has not been able to push out of my memory the sound of that screen door slapping shut on the front of this rustic store.  Memories like this past weekend help me cope with the kind of days faced this year with this dreadful school schedule.  It is most enriching to pause, close one’s eyes, and remember warm scenes from the past that are worth “calling up.”  William Wordsworth has enriched us with his “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.”  I often wish (hope) I could do the same visually for anyone who wishes to remember the “country store” from yesterday.

Thanks for reading.