Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Chameleon Couch

She Turned Away, Hiding Her Grin, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

I started this one with a model, working from observation for the first three hours. Notice the couch is blue - it's the same couch as the one seen in the last post, and in many others I've posted in the last few years. The actual couch is gray. I just make it different colors, largely on whim. Sometimes I cover it with colored (or not) fabric to get a feel for the color environment, but often I just respond to the color scheme that I've decided on at the start of the painting.

The shape of the couch varies in my paintings also. I can change the height of the couch back, whether it's straight, curved, or irregularly shaped.  It's not a big deal, really. The arms of the couch (not shown in this painting) are a little trickier to invent and transform, but with careful attention to perspective and with a little practice, that too, is doable.  If you want authenticity of style or detail,  of course the best thing to do is to get the furniture you actually need and set it up properly. But as you can plainly see in my case, the specifics of the furniture isn't what I'm after. 

The more generic the furniture, the easier it is to morph into something that works for many paintings. 

Having been an illustrator for many years, I'm comfortable working this way. Of course it doesn't always work out the way I envisioned, but the process of trying to get it right and failing at it, sometimes gives me pleasantly unexpected results. And sometimes it blows up in my face. But that's life~

The main thing is that I get the pose and the gesture that works. The edge of the seat, in this particular painting, has to be pretty convincing in terms of responding to gravity, and that's not made up, but if you notice that the two sides plunge towards the legs in slightly different angles? That is designed, not observed. So little things like that need to be considered everywhere if a painting were to be composed.  Mindlessly copying what we see, even if accurately done, will only give us an imitation of reality, lacking in artist's intent and expression. I think many a realist painters may disagree with me, but if you ask the best of them, they will tell you that good painting is not achieved by merely noodling the hell out of whatever they're trying to depict. 

But that's another day's topic. The following are a bunch of paintings featuring the same couch.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


Prologue,  16 x 20 inches, oil on linen

This is a recent painting that I did. 

It's 16 x 20 - a pretty good size–I'm trying to work larger of late. For reference, I used an old charcoal sketch - a 20 minute drawing, which had no color information so I made up the colors as I painted. I work this way often. I like the freedom of being able to imagine the colors and not being bound to what's in front of me. 

How long did I spend on this? May be 12 or 15 hours, over 4 or 5 sessions. I usually work a couple of hours at a time, and often at night under artificial light, so after a couple of hours, the glare on the paint surface becomes such that it's very difficult to see my strokes. I then stop, rather than fight it. I let it dry for a few days and come back to it.

When I use solvent to apply dark colors as transparent washes, the area dries matte and much lighter in value and looks completely different from areas which retained the glossy surface (because I didn't use solvent, for example)  A coat of Liquin (or any other painting medium) over the dried surface  brings back the values and lustre to the wet state, so I can judge values and colors properly. This is called oiling-in.

Often, when I come back to a dried painting to work on it some more, I end up putting paint over the whole thing, mainly because I'm looking for wet-into-wet strokes and you just can't fake that, even on top of a oiled-in surface. And I don't want to fake a stroke, anyway.

Some abstract strokes are done wet on dry. I look for opportunities to do this each time I come back to a dried painting. I love the sharp edges that look like it was masked with a frisket. But I want these areas to be integrated into wet-into-wet strokes, or juxtaposed against more brushy, textural strokes, so there's quite a bit of scraping and reapplying of paint of different viscosities and opacities.

At one point I had the shadow side of the figure, including the dress, much darker so as to lose the edges between these shadows and the cast shadow shape on the couch itself, connecting them. After going back and forth a few times, I decided to lighten the shadow on the dress. because the shapes flowed better. It could have worked with a dark shadow, too. Just not the same mood.

My process for abstraction varies, but often in the beginning stages, the painting looks pretty much straightforward alla prima. More or less traditional representational direct painting. If such a thing can be defined. What I mean is that I'm just painting reasonably "realistically" in terms of colors and values, and nothing really exaggerated. My strokes are not super tight, but not really all that loose either.

Abstraction happens slowly for me. First i'll lose one edge, then another. Then I might redefine a lost edge. Then I may lose it again. After a while, I'll get braver and start losing edges in unexpected areas. (Expected areas being dark shapes adjacent to each other) I may load up an area with color, and using a knife or a brush or a scraper or a finger, drag that paint into an area next to it, whether the color/values are close or not.  Then I may do the same from the other side back into the original shape. Obviously colors and edges become mixed in ways that has nothing to do with rendering of form, and this often brings about surprising results. It's easy to do this in areas of low risk, like the green couch into the dark background. Not so easy (psychologically) to do where drawing is critical, like the lit part of the figure into the background.

Naturally, I become protective of areas where it took a lot of work to get it to look like what it should, whether it be a head, or an arm, or something which requires careful perspective drawing like buildings and cars. Chances of losing all that hard work in an instant is very high, so it takes me a while before I work up the courage to do those areas.

But once I'm ready, I don't turn back. Because I can't. More often than not, cursing immediately follows the first try at this non-representational integration of adjacent shapes. Then I'm resigned to do it all over again by finding the more traditional, realistic depiction again- that is to say, I painted again realistically, so that I may take another whack at it.

The second time is easier. Because I'd been able to resurrect the believable head (or arm or car or whatever) once. I feel better about my capacity to repaint that difficult passage. And because I feel more confident, I'm willing to take the risk again, and this time, I may smoosh the areas with less trepidation, and that makes all the difference.

Truth be told, I sometimes have to repeat this process of painting representationally and deconstructing in a non representational manner, many, many times on one small area. If it's a labor intensive area like a human head or a hand, it can take a loooong time before I either concede defeat, or finally end up with something that works.

Seems to me like an awfully ineffective way to paint, but I haven't been able to find a way to speed things up. I guess because if I had a way to do this, that would be a formula which totally misses the point of my attitude toward abstraction. The process of abstraction for me, has to be exploration of the mysterious, grappling with something not entirely controllable, and the rush I get from going outside of my comfort zone and letting go of control.

So there. Did any of that make sense? I'm having a glass of wine as I type, so I'm not really sure if I'm actually articulating what's in my head, or whether I have anything in my head worth articulating. I'll read this tomorrow and find out!