Wednesday, November 27, 2013

French Fashion

One of the most tangible differences between life on the St. Lawrence, and life along the Mohawk would have been the greater access to European trade goods. The proximity to Montreal and Quebec city meant that the community at Kahnawake would have access to many more European materials. Their dress would have changed considerably. However, this difference is best understood in terms of style, rather than substance. The mohawk were quick to adopt European material, but they put it to their own uses and modified it as needed. The trade shirt is an example of this. In the portrait painted by Chauchetiere we see St. Kateri clothed in such a garment. We also see women wearing shirts and blouses of a more european design in Chauchetierre's drawings of Kahnawake and in Verelst's paintings. Yet we also see evidence of the modification of this clothing with traditional mohawk beadwork. While many of the traditional patterns and symbols are evident, in some cases even the beadwork seems to have changed.  It is Dr. Betty Duggan's contention that the Kahnawake doll in the collection of the British Maritime museum, exhibits a pattern that has been influenced by french decorative conventions. It is possible to discern something resembling a fluer-de-lis.

From the drawings and from the doll, it seems clear that female dress remains similar: composed of the same key pieces, and changing in its style. But what about male dress? or children? The second painting will feature St. Kateri with a male and female child. More next week on fashion tips from the historical record.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Back to the Drawing Board

Every painting I make begins with sketching, research, and preliminary compositions. So far I've probably drawn between 50-100 pencil sketches and painted two dozen different color compositions for the second painting. That sounds like a lot, but some of the sketches only take a couple minutes. A variety of sketches and compositions are visible in the photograph above. The best thing I learned in school was that my first ideas would always be pretty lousy. In the illustration classes I took we would receive an assignment on Thursday, critique comps on Tuesday, and look at the finished work two days later. My professors pushed the class the invest time in creative thinking early on, and to be continually questioning our assumptions.

I've gone back and reread some of the material I began studying this summer. Now that I'll be painting St. Kateri in Canada, I want to be sure I have all of the relevant details form that season of her life in my head. I'd hate for anything in the painting to go to waste, so I'm thinking about what sorts of things one would find inside a late 17th century longhouse. What sorts of symbols and patterns would have been incorporated into their dress? How can I use these elements to tell her story?

An example of this sort of questioning that went on with the first painting involved the lilies. We all have an image of a white lily in our heads, but these aren't native to the Mohawk Valley, and St. Kateri might have been puzzled to encounter a white lily. But it wasn't enough for me to just include native lilies; I was thinking about how many I ought to include and their arrangement. Since St. Kateri's conversion and expression of her faith has been interesting to me, I included a numerical relationship that is analogous between Haudenosaunee and Christian iconography. The number four signified wholeness to the Mohawk, just as the number three expresses unity and wholeness to Christians. Thus all of the lilies are grouped in fours and threes--which then add up to the number seven, an expression of wholeness and perfection common in the old testament.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


© Archives Departementales de la Gironde, Bordeaux

The second painting, St. Kateri Tekakwitha and the Children, will be set in the Mohawk community on the St. Lawrence River in Canada, Kahnawake. We know considerably more about the mohawk from that community than we do about the communities along the Mohawk river. Even images, like this drawing by Claude Chauchetiere, have been preserved. Purely as aside, it is interesting to note that Chauchetire's drawings are considered the most historically accurate visual material from this period. Since nothing else comes close, I've relied on his drawings more than anything else. One of the ten he is known to have made appears above. So often drawings are reproduced in greyscale, but to do so here would rob you of the opportunity to appreciate the warm brown ink he's using. I've speculated about the nature of his ink. It's too red to be a sepia. I wonder if it might be a walnut ink. 

This, and his other drawings convey a wealth of information about life at the mission. Chauchetiere makes clear the sort of structures in which the members of the village lived. The buildings were built in the manner of the traditional long house, but the design was more European. In the Mohawk Valley the building would have had a rounded roof at this time, but here the roofs are triangular. They have a simple entrance and few windows to let in the light. The artist also includes important details about clothing. Both men and women wore moccasins and leggings. The male skirt (the individual on the left holding the gun)--which evolved from a breech clout--is shorter and plainer than the female skirt (center) Since it is winter, they wear snowshoes, and wrap themselves in furs. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Time to Make Another Painting

Now that the semester is winding down, I'm getting ready to begin another painting. I cleaned up my studio and have started work preparing for the next painting: St. Kateri Tekakwitha and the Children. If you were reading this summer, you already know that a lot of work goes into a painting before I can even start mixing paint, but don't worry, I'm not planning on repeating everything I previously wrote about priming, sizing, grounding etc. 

I did, however want to share a couple recent publications that deal with painting on rigid and flexible supports. Some of the information was quite new to me, and in fact, some recent research contradicts the the long established practice of many painters. 

Golden Pigment's Just Paint probably isn't something the arm-chair art enthusiast would be interested in reading. There's a lot of shop talk. Even artists have to sift through some technical and trade jargon. But there's a lot of great stuff in each issue. Volume 28, from last winter focused on flexible painting supports. There's a great analysis of a variety of sizing and priming treatments. Nothing new. All well established arguments. I'm preparing my next canvas (as I did the first) along the same lines.

It was the most recent volume that was so surprising to me. The phrase, "wrecking ball" comes to mind. In an article on the history of wood as a painting substrate, the author stresses the advantages of S2S hardboards (or tempered hardboard, masonite, etc.) for permanent paintings, over other medium and high density boards. Most artist handbooks are very negative regarding tempered boards. I avoided them for years and spend hours calling lumber yards in search of untempered paneling. The article is a little sparse on the technical data that would support that argument, so hopefully more will be forthcoming. It would be a major boon if there turns out to be no conservational objection to tempered boards. Of course all wood based painting substrates would need to be completely sealed and primed with an archival glue. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Painting Demonstrations

The images above are a painting demonstration I did recently for my Painting I class. They're putting together the skills they've developed so far in the areas of value modeling, color mixing, and temperature relationships. To understand the way that color relationships function to create unity and space, they make two paintings, one of which conforms to a grid. It ends up looking like an old 8 bit NES game--but the space and unity of each image is the same, despite the loss individual objects. Often in class I challenge them to subordinate the details to the whole. The grid image is a pure expression of that concept.

I took my class up to my studio the other day to show them my work. I told them that I wanted to show them that the things I do professionally are rooted in the things they're doing in class. Painting can be a mysterious activity. Some painters, with the help of historians and curators cultivate this. Jacques Maroger, who claimed to have discovered the "lost medium" of Da Vinci et. al. would say of Rubens: "he was a good painter, but he didn't have the medium". An interesting episode in the late 18th century involved a chimney sweep, The English Royal Academy, a matter of 600 - 1000 pounds sterling, and the secrets of Titian. I doubt anyone made any better paintings after they acquired the secret.

Salvador Dali may have gone in for such things as the Wasp Medium--or genuine amber varnish for that matter--but I try to keep it simple in my studio, and in my classroom. I'll often paint demonstrations so my student have the opportunity to see a painting go from start to finish, as well as to see the problem solving that goes on while making a painting. The image above is one such demonstration. I use the same paints and brushes as my students, so they know I'm not trying to pull a fast one on them. There's little more to it than mixing the right color, and sculpting with that and other hues on the canvas.

You've all seen some in process shots from a head study I painted recently. I hope to post another, and more complete demonstration at a later date. Until then, through this link you can access an artist lecture I gave a year or two ago at the Foundry for Design + Culture.