Post Emily

Life has been quite a ride this past two months, including moving (twice) and having an up-close-and-personal encounter with an unwell wild bat which necessitated a series of post-exposure rabies vaccines. But what do we do when life happens? We keep painting.

I finished working from Portrait of My Grandmother two weeks ago, and there may be some tweaks that I'll add in the home studio but all in all, it turned out very well. This is 36" x 24", and I will post some progress shots below.

Can you tell that my favorite element in this painting is her hands? They almost painted themselves. Here is a look back at from the start.


Motley's painting is loaded with texture. He painted it on a rough canvas laundry bag, as mentioned in the previous post, and he worked in thick layers of paint over that rough support. There are places where his brush visibly skipped over wrinkles that were already forming, before the painting was even done. To suggest that texture on my comparatively smooth canvas, I used thick random brushstrokes and layers. In the first session, I tried to get the drawing and composition more or less there, and laid on a lot of paint. From there it was mainly corrections and refinement.

I don't know if Motley used an underpainting, we don't know much about his process especially for these early paintings that weren't his mature style. I used burnt sienna for the wash and drawing, and then fought it the rest of the way to get her coloring accurate.


I don't normally paint in a "serial" fashion, meaning I normally work up the whole surface of the canvas as a unit, not one area and then another area. Motley's painting shows dark outlines around the hands, as if he drew their placement and then painted them separately later. This painting was almost certainly done from life, and an 80-year-old woman would not be able to hold a pose for a very long time...so it would make sense for him to work the more challenging sections (face and hands) to completion one at a time. That was how I painted her hands. Established the shape and then in one session, painted them in.

Her face is a portrait of character, dignity, life history. It was by far the most challenging part of my painting. I kept putting emotions there which were mine, not hers. She's not sad in Motley's painting, but I kept finding sadness in mine. Portrait painters connect with subjects and ideally, paint the essence of the sitter. That's where being a copyist is different. Motley painted Emily with his own lifetime knowledge of her. In the end, his is a painting of Emily. Mine will always be a painting of a painting. Over the ten weeks that I worked on this, I met a lot of sincerely interested visitors and I got to share Emily's story with countless people. I wanted to do her justice, and hope that I did. 



The Kenyon Cox piece is finished, I'll update the image in the previous post. The next project will be this glorious painting by Archibald Motley Jr., a work which was just acquired by the National Gallery from the artist's family late last year:

The lady whose portrait this is, Emily Motley, is the artist's grandmother. She was born into slavery in 1842, and freed when she was about 20. Married a Native American who had also been a slave, and they raised a beautiful, successful family. Archibald Motley Jr. graduated from the Art Institute in Chicago in 1918 and struggled to succeed as a painter, so he worked as a porter on the Wolverine, a train from Chicago to Detroit. His father was also a porter on that train, one of the best jobs available to African Americans at that time. Motley could not afford to buy quality art supplies, so he used a canvas laundry bag from the train as a support for this painting. This explains the extraordinary texture, which I'll talk more about as I work. He struggled for a long time to finally become successful as a modernist, totally different style, but his portrait and the other one of his grandmother are his finest work IMO and they were his favorite paintings. She was about 80 when this was painted in 1922.

I highly recommend the supporting material on the NGA website, with videos that really expand on one's understanding of the importance of this work. Curator Nancy Anderson's talk is absolutely wonderful, providing essential context and enlightenment about this work.

The other painting of Emily is the richly symbolic "Mending Socks", 1924, which is in the collection of the Ackland Museum in Chapel Hill NC. I had the opportunity last month to view that work and the curatorial file, which is filled with articles, interviews and documentation relating to both these works. I'll have more to say as my work progresses.


Progress, and old business

Making good progress on Kenyon Cox, might be completed in one more session. Still a lot to do, but it's coming together well.
The main reason for painting from master works is to learn, and (if it's not a commission), there's a point at which I've learned what this artist had to teach me, so it's okay to move on. I work quickly, a result of my plein air landscape work. More can be done in the studio later...but usually there's not much left to do.  

Here are some works from last fall, before the layoff. First up, Chardin's Still Life with White Mug:

16" x 20" and done in one four-hour sitting. The original looked very much like it had been done that way, premier coup or alla prima, so that was my plan as well. Chardin painted this late in his career, and it's filled with confidence and bravado. He painted the one right below (Fruit, Jug, and a Glass) 50 years earlier and it has the more tentative and labored feel of a young painter with something to prove. 

This Van der Neer Moonlit Landscape was an exercise in establishing nocturnal values. I wasn't concerned about the extremely fine details which are strewn throughout this painting like Easter eggs. Aert Van der Neer was known for his nocturnal landscapes during his lifetime.

Finally, this still life by Willem Kalf was technically fascinating. This painting, like so many others, has had an interesting and uneasy life. They are like humans in that way: they survive some rough or unfortunate treatment and bear the scars of that, but their beauty shines through. This painting had a huge tear in it at one point, had been overcleaned and inpainted to a shocking degree, but was restored to its original, sublime beauty by the best conservators in the world: those at the NGA. I didn't quite finish this on site before my sabbatical, but it won't take much to get it there. It's a classical 17th century Dutch still life, peaceful and lovely, belying its turbulent past.


Back to Work

After a layoff for some health issues and a digression into more drawing and watercolor, it's back to work in oil at the National Gallery. The painting I'm working from now is "Flying Shadows" by Kenyon Cox. This painting was acquired as part of the merger with the Corcoran collection, so it's only been at the NGA since 2015. There isn't a high-res image of it yet on the NGA site, nor many notes about its technical and historical background, but the Corcoran site still has an extensive entry on it for the scholars among you. The life of the physical painting is always fascinating, all that it has been through to reach its present state. Just like a human, it bears the evidence of some hard times but its beauty shines through.

Here's the start of day 1 and the end of day 2:

My canvas is 20 X 24". Still a long ways to go, many corrections and layers to add.

Kenyon Cox was a very important painter, illustrator, and muralist in the Academic Classical style. He trained at PAFA and in Paris. This landscape is an early work in his oeuvre, a bit looser than his later work. He taught at the Art Students League, where he applied the ancient dictum "Nulla Dies Sine Linea"--no day without a line (of drawing), still the best advice for artists of all kinds. There are a number of his drawings in the NGA collection as well.

The painting has a buff-colored ground and no overall undertone. It seems constructed of many thin layers built up to portray the lush softness of the grassy fields and the trees. That's my strategy, to get the soft, subtle glow of gentle color coming through. The biggest challenge is to tone down my usually-brighter palette without killing it. Landscape is definitely in my comfort zone, and Kenyon Cox has a lot to say about it.