Deconstructing a painting (part three)

Don’t paint the photo




This sentence is written down and posted on the wall of my back studio (my ‘idea factory’) where I produce the studies and play with the ideas that eventually lead to a painting.


The Sri Lankan schoolgirls were an excellent case in point. Although I was able to jot down studies in my sketchbook at the scene as well note the mood, atmosphere and my own feelings and associations, I also took a lot of photos with my iPhone.


For me, using photos is a dangerous but sometimes necessary practice. Why? The photo records the visual facts and all the details like a good machine should do. But when the photos are back in my studio I realize I have not yet made any choices, I have not selected what I find important or non-essential. I haven’t yet distilled the image down to its essentials, which is what drawing is all about.


Beginning the painting



I’ve now made 50 or so drawings. I’ve entered into, become intimate with, filleted, analyzed, pulled the figures part and reassembled them. Time to affix two 110×120 cm. aluminum panels to my front studio wall and get started.


Using only rags saturated in indigo paint I move quickly across the white surface. I know my first run must be a statement.


Confident in what I have learned and yet nervous to be relying only on instinct and intuition I bolt out of the gate as a skier on a black diamond slope. A huge expanse of white looms before me.


The moment a dark is registered the response must be balanced, bold and beautiful.

Voices shout directions, encouragement, as I hurtle towards the right side, the finish line:

‘Hold the lyricism’   ‘Keep it open’   ‘Suggest, Don’t describe’    ‘Balance, Balance’




A good run.

I like it.

Actually I like it a lot.

But I won’t leave it here.

I like the placement.

The balance of dark and light is good.

Legs are not working.

The figures need to be tweaked and shifted around.

It reads like a poem for me now, a text I can’t quite decipher and yet suggests volumes.


To be continued…..




Deconstructing a painting (part 2)


Cell phones?

Returning home to Amsterdam, I printed a number of photos and together with the drawings I’d made in Sri Lanka,  I set myself up in my back studio to begin working on composition in preparation for my first painting. As I studied and drew I became aware of a remarkable ambience in the groupings of the girls. There was a presence, a connection between them that I couldn’t quite put my finger on…

Then I understood it. They had no cell phones. They were ‘in relationship with each other’. Talking, laughing, gesticulating, lost in thought, bored or simply observing what was going on around them.


Arabic text

In my travels in Morocco and Tunisia I was always intrigued by the rhythmic beauty of Arabic text. Perhaps it was this appreciation that helped me to instantly perceive the girls heads and limbs as undulating text moving across the white ‘page’ of their uniforms and the wall behind.

My goal was clear: remain in touch with the visual reality that so moved me AND find a means to incorporate that into the larger compositional idea it aroused in me.



Edgar Degas has always fascinated me. When I studied at the National Academy of Design at 5th Avenue and 89th Street in New York (across from the Guggenheim Museum) I would often walk a few minutes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, donate my 5 cents (you had to donate something for admission, and the employees there got to know my face and knew I was a poor art student. They would just smile and pass me through) and head towards my favorite galleries. Often those were the rooms containing the drawings and pastels of Degas. Together with Eduard Manet, he served as a bridge connecting the classic, academic style to the ‘impressionism’ of his younger colleagues. He once remarked : “No art was ever less spontaneous than mine.” He was a fantastic draughtsman who knew his anatomy inside and out but was always looking for new compositional ideas. For instance, how he found ways to redesign the bodies of his dancers to form a flowing, lyrical whole.

His drawings helped me a lot to think in certain compositional terms and to not just simply copy the group in a specific photo onto the canvas.

To be continued….

Deconstructing a painting

How does an artist (myself) know a painting is finished? How do I begin a painting? What are the decisions made during the process? In an ongoing series the reader will journey with me during the creative process. From inspiration, through deliberation, consternation, hesitation, a lot of perspiration and finally culmination.

The painting above entitled ‘Sri Lankan schoolgirls nr. 3’ will be our subject. It is painted on two aluminum panels and has a total size of 110×220 cms. I have been painting on aluminum for a little over a year now and I enjoy the hard surface that ‘pushes back’ rather than ‘giving way’ such as with stretched linen.

Upstate New York studio

Actually, working on such a surface began in the late ’90’s when my studio was in upstate NY and I painted for both the Borzo Gallery in Holland and the Dillon Gallery in Soho, NYC. I was constantly stretching, unstretching, rolling or restretching the canvases depending on whether they would be trucked to New York or shipped in tubes to The Netherlands. For expediency I began to tape the linen to large wooden boards, deciding later how to prepare the painting based on its destination. I began to take a liking to this surface and in my current Amsterdam studio I found that aluminum panels met my needs and demands.

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

A portrait of a young dutch girl painted back in 1982 who became and remained a dear friend was my link to this far away land. Together with her American husband they renovated an original dutch home there and invited Lili and I to stay. We arrived in February 2018. I had made an agreement with myself that this was a vacation with Lili and not a solo painting adventure like my 8 week trip to Italy the year before. But of course, that was not taking into account the sudden visual spectacle of 70 or more Sri Lankan schoolgirls in white dresses, white sneakers, complemented by red and pink backpacks and neckties piling out of a school building on a hot afternoon soon after we had arrived. I could hardly be expected to remain true to my vacation vows as they assembled in a row against a long, white wall; their dark, dancing legs and constantly gesticulating arms and hands forming an ever-changing calligraphic text on the white page formed by their uniforms and the schools enclosure.

I was smitten. Enraptured. Head over heels inspired. My pen, sketchbook and iPhone were recording the scene before I had time to think….


To be continued……

Pastel Workshop Heemstede, The Netherlands, it’s all about color.

Colors and their relationship to each other. That was the theme of my workshop this past week, my fourth at this beautiful estate close to the city of Haarlem in The Netherlands.  Forests, a small lake, fields with horses, a huge vegetable and flower garden, a large barn-like structure which served both as base camp for the students and as fallout basis for the occasional rain shower, made this an ideal location for excursions into color and composition. .

The sessions

The daily sessions were originally divided into: black & white composition; composing the landscape in cool colors; composing the landscape in warm colors; composing the landscape in simple color planes and a final session which was originally conceived as a ‘putting it all together’ day but instead shifted into an indoor event. The intermittent rain showers demanded flexibility and so in addition to the sessions named above we also had a portrait sitting as well as a still life as inspiration. This abandoning of carefully laid plans is all too often reflected in the act of creating art as well. When something is not working, push it as far as it can go and be willing to let it go, hopefully initiating a new, fresh direction.


As a painter who has been working for more than fifty years, I am well aware of the struggle involved in developing a visual language that conveys your unique experience to the viewer. I implore my students to keep it simple, hammering away at the necessity of not affixing labels to what is observed: no apples, jugs, oak trees, mountains or anemones… only colors placed on a two-dimensional surface, in the right place, in the right relationship, doing the right thing.

It’s very simple once you decide to not make it difficult.

Sean Scully at the National Gallery in Londen, what a nice surprise.

It was a nice surprise to discover an exhibition of Sean Scully soon after entering the National Gallery in London this past Monday. I was accompanied by my nephew, a bright young man who when asked if he ever looked at art answered: ‘Yeah sure, I sometimes look at art’ but confessed that his taste was rather conservative, limited pretty much to the old masters.
Looking about at the abstract paintings hanging around us, I saw it as an interesting challenge to see if I could find the language to convey my appreciation of Scully’s rectangles and stripes to him. I did my best and he seemed to listen but of course I’m not sure what he made of it all.

Car trips

It reminded me of the trips I made by car between art school in Memphis TN and my home in New York in 1972-73. I would regularly stop off in Washington DC, roughly halfway on my 20 hour journey and stay a few days at St. Anselm’s Abbey where my cousin, Brother Giles, a Benedictine monk, lived and taught art history and architecture to the children of foreign diplomats. The monk’s cell I occupied was very simple, but free room and board, important to a poor art student and I genuinely enjoyed talking with my cousin and discussing his work in his attic atelier which we visited initially by candlelight, ascending the long narrow stairs behind one another. Giles using the candlelight to slowly illuminate the planes and features of some of the plaster portraits he had made of his fellow monks. He would also take me to the National Gallery and the Corcoran Museum, taking the time to deepen my art appreciation, pointing out the various works of art to me, his younger cousin.

In retrospect…

In retrospect I realized I had learned a lot from those sessions but at the time a lot of it sailed in one ear and out the other. I was a bit insecure and defensive at that age and although his knowledge and insights were certainly impressive and left their mark, I sometimes felt he was sharing ‘his’ experience and I wanted to have my own.
So it was that I launched into my own insights and understanding of Sean Scully’s works as we walked through the show together that Monday morning. He listened attentively, but of course you never know what remarks of mine hopefully might have added something to his own interaction with the paintings.  I’m very curious what my discourse on the art of Sean Scully provided him.