Twelve years working on technique

I’ve been making art my entire life, much longer than 12 years, but I thought I’d take a little while and write about a particular period of my work, from late 1997 to early 2010, which has largely been concerned with two-dimensional art, mostly acrylic on canvas. (Really, this post is about the first and last paintings of that period; as I post more posts about the work I did in between you’ll see more of the development of my techniques as they progressed.) For a few years before that, I’d been doing mostly murals, painting directly onto walls – of my bedroom, my friends’ bedrooms, even my church. Then, in the summer of 1997, I moved out of my parents’ home and across town to Tempe, where I was a physics student at ASU, and into an apartment. Where I was no longer allowed to paint on the walls. Thus, I began attempting to create art on canvases for the first time in the Fall of 1997. (I’d done a few not-very-good paintings on canvas boards at age 12/13, but that’s not exactly the same thing.)

Click any image for a larger view

The first piece of art I created after moving out, you can see at right. I’d been doing a lot of blue skies painting in my murals, and it carried over to this painting, in part. I was also interested in correlating colors to numbers and mixing them and laying them out according to simple mathematical patterns. In addition, you can probably see that I worked colored embroidery floss into my design, sewing right into the canvas. You can see that I was just experimenting, to a certain degree, playing with colors and shapes, with masking techniques, with so many things at once…

You can probably also see that it isn’t a particularly precise execution of its own ideas. Here’s a closer look:

It’s easy to just appreciate it, but for a perfectionist like me there are a lot of things about it which have bothered me for years and years. If you look closely, you can see the squares aren’t square, the circles aren’t perfectly round and none of them are aligned/centered with each other, which is part of why the straight lines don’t have correct symmetry. I don’t recall all the details of my initial plans, but you can see that there are three variations of each basic color, one in each ‘level’ (big box, big circle, small box), but can you guess what the pattern is? Or count the number of basic colors? Here’s a tough one: What is the relationship between the colors of paint and the colors of string? There is one. There are so many colors, and the variations between the 3 levels of each color are so non-uniform, that it appears unpatterned. A jumble.

Which doesn’t get into the fact that, in addition to not measuring the lines out accurately or symmetrically, I didn’t paint them very well, either. Even today I’m not very good at drawing or painting a straight line (or a curved one) freehanded, but in 1997 I clearly sucked. I had no clue. The thickness of the paint varies wildly, the edges overlap and aren’t crisp/clear, and to me, the result is a mess. Of course, I’ve been nit-picking it for over 13 years, now… And I still like it more than a lot of the other art I made between 1997 and 2002, and I know a lot of other people have told me they like it, too. (Never enough to buy it, yet, but enough to say something, which is more than most people do.)

In the following image, you can see one of my first attempts to use masking tape to create an actually-straight line. You can also see that the tape leaked – there are little “blooms” of paint where its edge wasn’t perfectly adhered to the canvas, and where I didn’t manage to lay the tape down straight at all:

Oh, and there were two other things; first, I always live a bit hard-pressed for cash, so the canvases I was practicing/starting with back in 1997 were the cheapest I could find. They were 16×20″ and came in two-packs from Michael’s. As you can see in the image at right, they also happened to be side-stapled. If I were the sort to frame my artwork, this might have been less troubling. As it is, it just looks sloppy and unprofessional to me, now. For every other piece I painted during this period (well, those I still had in my possession in 2003), where I hadn’t been extending the paint around the edges of the canvas (which is my current style – to literally continue the image around all the edges, increasingly with the deeper “gallery wrap” thickness of canvas), I went around the four ugly, stapled edges and painted them solid black, giving those works a sort of frame, covering up the staples, but not incurring the ridiculous expense of buying actual frames for them. With the bare canvas in the white stripes extending all the way to the edge of this one, the black border didn’t make sense…

The second thing is that, at some point between painting that first painting in 1997 and when I sold my first painting in 2000, I went back and signed all my paintings… but I didn’t know anything about signing paintings. I’d spent some months/years developing a new, artistic interpretation of my name/signature, so I had that ready, but … I ended up signing … disproportionately large signatures on my first dozen canvases. After that they grew smaller and smaller and, eventually, I began signing my art on the back of the canvas. In 2003 or 2004 I also decided to date and serialize all my art/creations, and I went back and signed the backs of all the paintings I still had possession of, adding serial numbers and dates. This is what I continue to do: sign, date, and serialize all my artwork, doing so on the backside of the canvas, for paintings on stretched canvas.

Over the years I continued to work on my techniques, continued to strive for straight lines, crisp edges, meaningful and interesting combinations of and patterns between colors, and around the end of 2009 or the beginning of 2010, I reached a sort of culminating point of development. In February 2010 I painted ‘they come in threes’ and immediately, before the paint was dry, knew it was my best work to date. Look at how crisp and clean the edges are. Straight lines are straight, curved lines are smooth and crisp, there are no overlaps, no visible brushstrokes along the edges where I had to go back in and cover this or that error up, all the paint is the same thickness, not clumped-up here and too-thin there…

It’s beautiful work. The brushstrokes which are visible are broad, sweeping strokes, blending colors and suggesting motion in line with the shapes the colors create. The whole thing was done in two passes, two “coats” of paint, one green and one the blues.

The corners are sharp. The colors carefully selected and carefully blended, their relationships, their contrasts, are clear. Darker blue against lighter green, lighter blue against darker green, some areas where the saturation and shade are so close as to play tricks on the eye… and all the measurements are precise and accurate. Each of the three shapes of the full composition are exactly the same size and shape and distance from one another, perfectly proportioned with each other and the canvas, and full of invisible symmetries beyond the obvious repetitions of shape. I accomplished all of this with carefully practiced brushstrokes and painstakingly perfected use of masking tape – the same things I didn’t know how to use well back in 1997, now mastered.

I painted this and felt, “Well, that’s that. There’s no more I can do, no place else to go, with that technique.” It was the last painting I created for a long time. In 2010, after I painted ‘they come in threes’ I only created two more works of art, both for book covers (here and here). This year, in April, I finally began painting again (a bit), when I received a commission for a new piece. Despite a few technical errors (including a strong gust of wind which resulted in a hole being broken through one canvas of the piece!), the same expertise I’d been building toward for over a decade, which had culminated in ‘they come in threes’, created another beautiful work of art with stunningly crisp lines, bold contrasts, and a delightful composition. Then, from a suggestion from the same woman who commissioned that piece, I created my most complex and difficult work to date, ‘RainbowAwesomeUnicornWow’, which is also really just two coats of paint carefully applied with the same techniques.

‘RainbowAwesomeUnicornWow’ is sold, but if you’re interested, both ‘they come in threes’ and my first stretched-canvas painting (currently titled ‘Spiraling Shape 4’ for some reason) are each still available for purchase. Prices are negotiable, delivery in the Phoenix area is included (shipping anywhere else is also available); email me at if you’re interested.

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Author, artist, romantic, insomniac, exorcist, creative visionary, lover, and all-around-crazy-person.

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