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Ok, back to painting soon, but it happens to be Jack Bruce’s birthday today. Despite the overuse of the g word in describing various artists/musicians of mindblowing supertalent, I would say it is hardly used enough in his case. Although I’ve always just known of it, I’ve been slow to actually begin experiencing the breadth of this man’s oeuvre.

Here he is still a very young fellow with some friends clearly having an f’ing blast. That bass . . . those horns. . . . Good time train, indeed.

Borlotti Beans framed

I’ve begun experimenting with a so-called Dutch black finish for frames, and it felt appropriate for this particular piece. I came across a description of this technique on the site of gilder and restorer Charles Douglas of Seattle, and he was kind enough to share with me some further tips.

It involves painting with casein and many, many coats of ruby shellac, resulting in an almost-black but warm umber tone, really just gorgeous. So far I’ve tried it only twice and am seeing how to maybe simplify the process a little as I would like to make a bunch of little frames for some of my past work. Quite smashing I’d think. And by the way, this one’s not for sale.

Borlotti Beans, final
Oil on linen on panel, 8×10.

Here is the final, after the 10th painting session which took place almost three weeks after I started. The first nine sessions were on consecutive nights. In total it took about 12 hours a lot more noodling about than I anticipated.

Of course one may be wondering how long the beans stayed “good”? Not very long. Some of the beans began to wilt after the first few sessions. (I had them waiting in the refrigerator for too long before I began painting.) Notice below and in the video where at some place during the fifth session I took liberties with the stem ends of the two diagonal beans nearest the front, after they had begun to wilt.

Fortunately before they got too bad I had most of the information I needed to work out the forms. By then I had made enough mental notes of the most important color relationships, like along the top edges of the two diagonal beans nearest the front. I found myself really obsessing over the skin of the farther of these, with its cold, ocean-like blue-green and somewhat purple tones, and the brightly lit curve of what after a while felt like its “head” as if it were a dolphin surfacing; and where the long and subtle ribbon of colors on this bean met the pale, almost grayish-pinks and deep crimsons of the frontmost bean. I would refine these meeting edges over and over again trying to get the colors right, and at times couldn’t believe how vibrant it seemed, almost Pre-Raphaelite (I feared). But that’s how these beans could resonate just sitting there.

The other tricky part was the cool zone towards the rear with the rather fat, green- and purple-flecked bean; the right part of it being more red and the left more blue, and across all this were the soft, shadowed bumps. If there was a part I was worried about overworking it was in this difficult pattern where the green had to appear as though they were showing through.

It wasn’t until about the seventh night that I began to feel I was getting somewhere:

Borlotti Beans, 2nd session Borlotti Beans, 3rd session

Borlotti Beans, 4th session Borlotti Beans, 5th session

Borlotti Beans, 6th session Borlotti Beans, 7th session

Borlotti Beans, 8th session Borlotti Beans, 9th session

In Rembrandt’s time the “working up” (opmaken) meant bringing the painting to a finished state, and the prescribed method was to start from the background plane forward. Ideally, areas of the background layer (“reserves”) would be left unpainted where foreground objects were to be placed later, except where doing so would impede the fluid painting or continuity of the background. Van de Wetering points out that painters in the 1600s were pretty much set in this working order, while those of the previous century were not so systematic.

Another general rule, which did carry over from earlier centuries, was to break the picture into color shapes, similar to the way fresco painters worked in giornate, the areas of wet plaster that one could finish in a day. The folds of a blue cloak would, for example, be brought to a finish or close to it, leaving adjacent (and nearer to the foreground) elements for another day’s work. What colors were mixed on a particular day depended on the section of work to be completed next.

Needless to say I have no need for giornate, but I couldn’t follow the literal working up procedure if I wanted to, which must be due to my late–19th-century, Impressionist sensibilities, or something. Van de Wetering writes:

To our modern minds, it seems more natural to imagine the choice of the spot at which the artist works on his picture to be dictated by the totality of the painting being produced. As Cézanne told his friend Joachim Gasquet, “Je mène comprenez un peu, toute ma toile à la fois, d’ensemble” [“You see, I work on my painting as a whole, all at once”]. This is the reason why today’s painter generally works standing up—so that he can repeatedly walk back a few paces to view the work as a whole. Seventeenth-century painters generally sat at their easel.

I often do sit at the easel but it’s usually because the work at hand is so small. I have to accept that I’m a product of my time, or at least of the teaching I received. For now, Cézanne and I don’t seem so far removed. (Of course, chronologically he is nearer to me than Rembrandt so why does that make me want to cringe?)

There is a lot of value in the Dutch master ways—after all, we call them Masters. We may not follow such systematic working processes, but can only benefit if we at least imagine the planes of depth, think in terms of isolated color masses. Think of giornate.

We happened upon these spectacular pinkish-red–flecked beans this summer. I was told they were a kind of French beans, or French Horticultural Beans. From what I later learned on the Web they’re also known as Borlotti—the same as “cranberry” beans sold in America—and supposedly popular in Portuguese and Italian cooking. Only the beans inside are edible (they are tasty simply boiled, then sautéed in olive oil with garlic).

The biggest challenge about painting these was their hellish patterning.  I mean it was almost overwhelming to me, some of the shells being more pink, some bluer-green in undertone. But I figured that, like with the striped eggplant I painted last year, if I took slow steps—making small notes, keeping my eye on the overall color masses and the value relationships between them—the patterning would evolve nicely. I’m not a painter that can convincingly alla prima simulate a speckle pattern with juicy dabs of the brush; I need to fake it gradually. I wanted to spread this painting out over several sessions, and in the end it took ten. I had to stop after the first 45–50 minutes—though I should say this was just after it had taken me that long or longer to get the damn things to sit right.

In the video it might also correctly say that the underpainting and dead-color stages are one and the same—the “dead” part being the monochrome nature of the sketch. Ernst van de Wetering, in Rembrandt: The Painter at Work, writes that painters of Rembrandt’s time would keep in their studios a stock of “provisionally completed” monochrome paintings “which were only to be worked up when ordered by a client.” But dead-coloring also meant simply underpainting in color, i.e. filling in an area with a usually flat, washy single color to approximate the final one. This is what I tend to do except that I begin to elaborate on the colors a little, or at least I had to begin making notes within local areas because of the pattern on the beans. And often, as in this painting, I throw color around well before the whole composition is sketched out properly. So it could be more accurate to say that I combine the sketching and preliminary-color stages. I suppose it doesn’t look like much when I give up sooner than I really wanted to:

Borlotti Beans, 1st session
Oil on linen on panel, 8×10 in.

Hard to believe it has been a year since I last posted anything. I decided it was time for a change and wish from here on to be a little more free in writing down my personal thoughts. This is after all a kind of journal.

I want to say Thank you to everyone who has been following me in the past.

Dan P. Carr's new blog.
See the old blog here.

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