“I joined you at the 2014 Maine workshop and I saw some of your students toning the canvas in red,” wrote a student coming to my 2016 workshop at Schoodic Institute in August. “It really gives the painting some punch. What kind of acrylic are you using to tone the canvas? I would like to prepare some painting surfaces in red for this coming workshop.”
It’s a simple wash of Golden’s fluid acrylics naphthol red, applied at least 24 hours before painting with a spalter brush (or anything else cheap and fast).
Toning the canvas is important in all painting, but essential in plein air, where that blinding white will knock your eyes silly and throw all value relationships askew. Canvases were traditionally toned in any color from grey to yellow ochre to burnt sienna, and I’ve used all those colors in the past. I started using the red ground after taking a portrait workshop from Steven Assael. I found it overheated my figure painting but was great with the green, grey landscape of the Genesee Valley.
Then this student added a postscript that left me pondering: “Your life is full of joy (not superficial happiness).” I wonder how that happened. It’s not just a question of faith, for many good Christians struggle in difficult situations. In fact, in times of loss and fear, our joy can be so deeply submerged that we barely recognize it when it reasserts itself.
My husband recently found a photo of my kids and me scrambling up a ladder in Mesa Verde. It was taken about 18 years ago. I well remember that day. But was it as much fun in the moment as it seems now? Did my back hurt? Was I worrying about the girls falling? Was I thinking about the logistics of seven people in a minivan and pop-up camper?
Somewhere in our lives we realize that our happy moments are not infinite. We have to savor them while we can. For me that epiphany came with cancer; in that respect it was one of the great blessings of my life.
Yesterday, a friend from a gallery, extremely knowledgeable about painting, stopped to see my new work before I packed it off to Camden Falls Gallery for Saturday’s opening.
“Have you ever considered varying your ground color?” she asked. “Like using a lavender or pink?” I was astonished, because I have been considering just that. I am always mindful of not falling into the artist’s trap of mistaking a rut for a groove (with apologies to Nick Lowe).
After she left, I created an Easter basket of toned canvases, going two steps cooler and two steps warmer than my typical naphthol red. I have three days in which to experiment, so that tropical depression can stay in the South where it belongs.