Marsh and Bower (above; oil, 48×144) is a scene from one of the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Cape Cod. In private hands since the early 1800s, this island has never been despoiled by development. The few dwellings on the island all cluster around a farmstead at the western tip. The rest of the island is an astonishingly beautiful wilderness. I wanted to conjure up an atmosphere of magical realism that would invite the spectator to journey into this enchanted place.
Step by Step
1-3 To make this painting easier to handle, I divide it into two 48×72 panels. I imagine a cinematic composition built around a glowing center, but the details of the composition are less important than the overall sense of movement and the quality of light, so I plunge in, working loosely and quickly, establishing the basic elements of the composition. I set up the architecture and the color of the painting, working with rags, large brushes and thin turpentine washes.
4 The painting acquires a darker and moodier atmosphere. I begin filling in the empty surface of the marsh with thicker paint and the first suggestions of reflections.
5 Tree shapes and textures as well as the tall grasses on the left portion of the curving track are more definite. The color throughout the painting is hyped up with intense magentas, deep purples, emerald greens, cadmium yellows, and cadmium reds. I continue working with big brushes, palette knives, large spackle blades and rags.
6 The scene gives more of a sense of light and shadow, particularly where the sunlight slants across the left side of the painting, illuminating the tree trunk and the grassy track.
7 I add more texture and detail, particularly on the grassy track and the bark and branches of the large tree on the left. For the tree bark I thicken the pigment with large amounts of Dorland’s wax medium and then apply it in many layers with palette knives and trowels so that the bark is crusty and incredibly tactile. Somehow while I concentrate on the texture, the painting begins to tighten and the color grows cooler and more subdued.
8 I loosen the brushwork, recharge the color, add more light-and-dark contrast and strengthen the shapes.
9 I turn my attention to the sunlight at the top of the painting. I want that light to appear splintered—captured in a filigree of leaves and branches—feeling fizzy, delicate and dazzling in a rhythmic counterpoint to the stately sweep of the grassy track and the gestural choreography of the trees. To accomplish this I mix a viscous blend of pigment, linseed oil, Grumbacher alkyd medium and turpentine, adjusting the proportions so that the mixture can be flicked and splattered onto the canvas and yet stay in place once it strikes the surface. I spatter the mixture on the painting and let it dry to a relief map of sinuous squiggles and noisy pops. Then I paint into, over and around this accidental tracery, pulling out the energy and rhythm that I’d been unable to find when working more intentionally.
In the trees on the right side of the painting, I introduce slabs of pure cobalt blue and scarlet red, which beckon the eye in a manner different from the detailed textural rendering on left side.
10 In the completed painting the detail, color and structure of the marsh’s far shore let your eye travel unimpeded into the deep space in the painting’s center. The same is true for the space on the right side of the painting. Throughout the work I’ve orchestrated the color to enhance the sense of movement and variation. Cooler tonalities are on the left, warmer on the right, pastel tints in the background and saturated hues in the foreground. Meanwhile, each of the four trees sounds its distinctive color chord. I’ve also orchestrated movement and variation into the painting’s rhythms and patterns, as seen in the fizzing filigree of sunlight; the large, linking gestures of the branches; the dark, horizontal beats of the grassy hummocks in the marsh; the vertical staffs of the tree trunks and the big unifying arc of the grassy track.
Back and Forth
Completing Marsh and Bower took me over four years (interspersed with long stretches during which I worked on other paintings), yet the finished painting (image 10) is recognizably present in the initial sketches (images 1-3). So why did the painting take so much time?
I felt that there were four things that I needed to accomplish before the painting would come to life:
- actualize the inherent drama of the space
- dial up the intensity of the light in the center of the painting and puzzle out how that light would permeate every part of the marsh and of the bower
- build up the physical surface of the painting so that each element would have its own distinct tactile and illusionistic representation
- fuse all of this together into an expressionistic truth, recreating the atmosphere of enchantment that inspired the painting in the first place.
Complicating these tasks were the painting’s size and the singleness of the composition; in other words, all parts were interconnected. If I made a significant alteration to one part of the painting, I needed to let the consequences of that alteration ripple through the whole composition before I could properly assess the success or failure of that change. This necessitated a great deal of back-and-forth work—building up and tearing down, darkening and then lightening, shifting the color in one direction and then in another, continually adjusting to strike the right balance of color, tone and texture.
Jon Friedman is featured in the May issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Click here to see an online gallery of his work.