Now that all the plein air events are done for the year, I am starting a new project. My friends Chris and Linda have asked me to create a large painting depicting their ancient olive grove down in Porterville, in California's Central Valley, and I thought what a great opportunity to dig deep into a subject matter and do a proper, old-school project. That is to say, thoroughly explore the theme and do a bunch of studies and sketches to arrive at the final painting. (Anyone ever see the El Jaleo show at the National Gallery years ago? It was an exhibition of sketches, studies and other related works - some of which were fully realized masterpieces themselves - which culminated in the unforgettable flamenco dancer painting. Now that's doin' it proper, yo)
I was supposed to stop by the ranch on my way back from SLO, but it got too late and too dark to see anything, so I had to come straight home. I will make a trip down yet, to collect some photo references and do a few sketches en plein air, but in the meantime I have hundreds of Chris and Linda’s photos with which to work. I dove right in without a preconceived notion of what the final painting should be. Actually, I’m not thinking about the final painting at all. At this early stage, I just want to immerse myself in the creative process and do a bunch of studies.
It’s sort of like writing a short story or a novel I would imagine, and I don’t actually have the story yet. I’m trying out a few sentences, character studies, plot lines, voices and dialogues... I am absolutely confident that by going through this process, a story will emerge on its own. Then and only then will I consider sitting down and designing the big painting. Even after I get there, I’m sure I’ll be doing more studies but they’ll be in context of the final piece.
Besides the grove itself, which is a hundred years old, there is this garden filled with roses and irises and whoknowswhatelse, which obviously are not about the ancient olive trees, but they’re contextually important. An essential character, or a tangent plot or a background setting to a story, if you will. This stuff may not find its way into the final, but they still need to be investigated because they’re so much a part of the significance of the Grove.
This shot is actually an interesting visual problem. There is so much contrast around the fountain and so much activity, it’s difficult to maintain that sense of visual busy-ness and create a focal point as well. I like the idea of the fountain getting lost in the activity, which to me is a purely abstract exercise - I may give it a try later on.
One thing I do want to achieve, is to keep the brushwork as loose and free as possible. With structures like this it’s easy to get too tight and rendered. If I could keep things loose yet accurately drawn, I’ll have a much stronger piece. Easier said than done, since inaccurate drawing will stick out like a sore thumb.
I love the late afternoon light hitting the trunks. The midday sun creates its own moods which are very compelling in a Steinbeckian sort of way, but it’s very tricky to define the tree’s structure when it’s all in shadow. Still, I wouldn’t abandon an idea just because it’s difficult to do. We’ll see where the story takes us.
All the sketches and studies may be viewed larger on the project page.