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.