Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My Viewing Mantle

Many artists keep their finished paintings in the studio so they can critique and adjust them. But typically, this is for a short period of time, and in a space where they probably don't spend their non-painting hours. A brush stroke here, a brush stroke there, and it's off to the frame shop. (Or perhaps the closet!)

But can you really figure out what's wrong with a painting in such a short time and in a busy workplace? That last stroke may be a hasty one. I, too, have often had to "undo" what I thought was the right correction.

In my opinion, an artist really needs to live with his paintings in a place of calm in order to render a fair judgement.

My "viewing mantle" -- pictured here, and you can click on it for a larger view -- is a solution that developed over time. When we moved into our 1860s Cape by the ocean last year, we decided, for practical reasons, to make the formal living room into our bedroom. (It has a nice view of the bay, and it's much warmer in the winter. Plus, it's near the house's sole bathroom!) This room has a fireplace, long decommissioned, and we decided a small dresser would fit perfectly in front of it. Above the fireplace is a large mantle. For many weeks, both mantle and dresser top lay empty, save for the occasional knick-knack or pair of socks.

One day, I made a painting that was particularly frustrating. I put it up on one of my "viewing rails" in the studio, but try as I might, I just couldn't solve the puzzle of what it needed next. In a brainstorm, I brought the painting down from the studio and propped it up on the empty mantle. I must mention that our bed faces this mantle directly. As I lay in our bed, always a place of calm, my eyes were able to linger on this painting while reading in the evening or sipping coffee in the morning. I found myself often critiquing it as I gazed at. My wife also gave her suggestions.

Sure enough, this did the trick. It didn't take long to realize just what I needed to do to "fix" the painting. This process worked so well that I began to regularly bring paintings to this spot. I rarely critique my work in the studio anymore. No sooner than I finish a painting do I take it to the "viewing mantle" for a few days of inspection.

Lately, I've been working on 5x7 winter studies. The "viewing mantle" is the perfect place to line up a whole bunch of them for critique. Some paintings go away entirely, never to be see again; most get an extra touch or two and go back up on the mantle for further review. Some, the real gems, never need another brushstroke, and it's hard to take them down since I enjoy them so much.

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