Aaron Morgan Brown
Incident in a Waiting Room (oil, 48×72)
As if capturing a moment frozen in time, Aaron Morgan Brown teases us with an improbable scenario in Incident in a Waiting Room. Going for a seamless blend of fantasy and reality, Brown created this painting as an indulgence. “I asked myself what I would paint if I allowed myself to delve thoroughly into a flight of fancy, without any regard to logic, degree of complexity or attempt to please anyone but myself,” he recalls. “This was the result.”
Although Brown conveys a sense of reality with a traditional setting, believable rendering of light, and fine brushwork, the colorful assemblage of characters and their mix of tragicomic poses soon make us decide otherwise. What’s presented, in fact, is an altered reality where elements of verisimilitude and absurdity coexist. “A lot of it is just playing different elements off each other. In purely compositional terms, that designed equilibrium translates into a pictorial psychology in which figures or objects acquire a certain power because they’re isolated,” Brown explains. “Essentially, the image resembles a high-wire act, delivering unresolved drama with passages of humor. Yet the real subject is a dreamlike state fraught with a bit of tension.”
Using Photoshop to position the figures, Brown created a rough draft of his design. Taking an “open-ended” approach to painting, he made changes on the canvas as he progressed, such as significantly adjusting colors and contrast to evoke a more emotional response to this unforgettable picture. Brown’s “cast of actors,” assembled from various photographic references, includes a woman in a shawl holding a baby—an homage to the timeless Madonna and Child, as well as a nod to Renaissance masters. These two, along with the other figures in the scene, are viewed and introduced by the viewers’ stand-in, the girl in the foreground.
Telegraph Hill (mixed watermedia, 22×22)
Balancing taut lines and teal blue shapes, Elaine Daily-Birnbaum quietly energizes linear space in this spare composition. In accord with her usual practice, she developed Telegraph Hill intuitively, beginning without a plan on blank paper. “Sometimes I’ll set up a specific challenge to explore,” she says, “but I usually start by just pushing paint around until I’m sparked with an idea. Often, the concept pertains to a place I’m familiar with.” For this image, early gestural marks recalled a street in the San Francisco Bay Area where the artist once lived. Using simple shapes and lines, she suggested, rather than defined, her subject: A house, cables and a street light are possible allusions. “No single element reveals my concept, but it comes through in the overall sense of the piece. I feel I have to keep working until I discover that concept,” she says.
To generate a variety of effects, Daily-Birnbaum employs mixed watermedia, freely combining watercolors, liquid acrylics, ink and watercolor crayons on hot-pressed watercolor paper. “To me, all the media are just pigment,” she says. “I like to create texture and to use especially linework to energize the surface by connecting shapes.” Her process initially unfolds with a series of thin washes, frequently done in warm tones to achieve a background glow. By partially lifting freshly painted layers with a paper towel, she adds surface depth. As she progresses further into the piece, she focuses on breaking up space, including formulating large areas of negative space, until something triggers an idea. Her final step is to enhance her vision by delineating additional marks and colors.
A self-taught artist, Daily-Birnbaum is inspired by the work of Nathan Oliveira and Richard Diebenkorn. Because abstract painting lacks a strong narrative, she feels it offers a more intimate experience. “The abstract artist only tells part of the story; the rest is what you, the viewer, bring to it. It’s like looking into the artist’s soul.”
Aim High (watercolor, 30×22)
Abstract watercolorist H.C. Dodd arrived late to fine art: The artist was 67 when she began painting in earnest 16 years ago. A signature member of the American Watercolor Society, whose paintings have won more than 200 awards, she says of her career, “I wanted to see how far I could go as an artist, and I’ve been racing the clock ever since.” Her latest success, appropriately titled Aim High, perfectly sums up her can-do philosophy and outstanding path.
Dodd’s compositions always originate from the construction of a collage, which serves as a model for the painting to come. “The colors I choose are mostly my favorites. The forms aren’t anything in particular; they’re simply shapes. The design is entirely intuitive; I rearrange bits of paper until I like the arrangement and then transfer the design to my watercolor sheet,” she says. When she’s ready to paint, the artist starts by laying in her largest mass, frequently a black area. “To get a velvety dark, I paint several washes with a dark mixture—either black and brown, black and dark blue, or black and purple. When the area is almost covered, I then smooth it out by stippling the entire section with the same mixture,” she says. Her dramatic and often complex designs usually incorporate a full range of values. Dodd most enjoys the final stage of a painting in which she determines what details to add in order to unify and complete the picture. A juror in last year’s competition, she avers, “Competitions help you keep score and measure your growth. If you don’t try, you’ve already voted yourself a rejection.”
Texture plays a significant role in Donna Watson’s mixed media pieces, which start with collaged papers and layers of paint. “I incorporate a lot of scratching, lifting and rubbing into my surface to create ample visual interest,” she says. Nesting began with the artist’s own digitally photographed image of a bird’s nest. Selecting her remaining collage elements, including the Asian characters, she determined their placement, paying close attention to balance and unity within her square format. “At some point, the papers become just shapes, textures and colors. Then I paint.” Working on primed wood toned with black acrylic paint, she began to layer neutral colors, allowing portions of the underlayers to show through. The brass metal hinges, at the far edges of her piece, were glued on last. Nesting is from Watson’s nature-based Passage of Time series, which “speaks to the effects of time on things we see around us and the cycle of life,” she says. “Although objects get weathered and worn, life continually renews itself.”
The theory that any painting is, in some aspect, a self-portrait applies to Daniel Mather’s work. He admits, “I tend to paint wherever I am mentally and emotionally. Moments emerged at a time when my entire life was changing and reassembling into a new and different picture.” In this piece the artist has created a metaphor for our lives, which we may experience as unraveling while, in fact, a higher order prevails. In the first phase of the painting, he employed a house painter’s brush to lay down broad areas, followed by a luminous glazing technique with a smaller brush, to portray the shadowy world of the Everyman. “There are drips and splatters throughout; the overall effect is rough because Everyman is having a rough day,” says Mather. In the second phase, he used gesso to white-out the upper-left corner before painting in the crisp puzzle pieces in a more traditional manner. “The flat, broad color in the puzzle section signifies the underlying order in life,” he explains. “Ultimately, everything fits together and has meaning.”
Sometimes He Still Tried to Restrain Her (pastel, 58×38)
Portraying her Mexican dolls and figurines in carnival-like fashion, Barbara Rachko explores aberrant psychological states in her Domestic Threats series, which includes the winning Sometimes He Still Tried to Restrain Her. Each painting begins with a photograph of her setup, and then progresses into a seemingly primitive, but actually hyperreal, interpretation. “I animate the figures and surrounding elements to push the theme to its most dramatic effect,” she says. Rachko always works in soft pastels, applied in multiple layers (up to 30) onto sanded paper. Apart from carefully blending the pastel with her fingers, her method is completely unrestricted. She goes from dark to light or light to dark, continuously adjusting shapes and color combinations. Her labor-intensive approach yields one finished, large-scale painting in 3–5 months. While Rachko’s bizarre mélange of characters is unsettling, she sees them as credible surrogates for conflicting and suppressed human emotions. “They perform for me like a repertory company, assuming different roles in different paintings.”
Christine Proskow is an artist and freelance writer living in Thousand Oaks, California.
Villa Hills KY
Aaron Morgan Brown
Ann Arbor MI
Anna Solcaniova King
Santa Cruz CA
New York NY
Bonnie E. Rodgers
Ann Arbor MI
West New York NJ
Stephen Scott Smith
Vero Beach FL
Sheary Clough Suiter
San Francisco CA
San Francisco CA
H. Dean Willis
W. Dundee IL