Twilight in Old San Juan: Progress and Paddleboarding

After some more time away and too much thought, I am finally into this painting. I don’t know why this one has been more intimidating. Probably because there are so many aspects to it, so many details to make decisions on that I wasn’t ready to make. Fortunately, there is no better cure for over thinking than paddleboarding, which I was able to do twice this week on one of the local man-made lakes, once before work with one of my best friends who was in town for a few days, and then yesterday with my family. This really set the tone for the weeks to come, and now I feel like summer’s really here. Today’s ridiculous humidity helped with that impression too.

As I have gotten into this painting in detail now, I have been surprised over the amount of green that came into play, such as in the glass of the big doors on the left, and even in the shadows. I drew on my study of Hopper’s Marshall’s House to do this. I have found that my darks and grays are including some hints of green as well. I am also relying on Cerulean blue to cool off the yellow of the left side buildings. Adding even a small amount of Cerulean to a mix immediately brings out the humidity. Here’s where it stands now.

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Twilight in Old San Juan: Some Thoughts on People in Paintings

What is the role of people in non-portrait paintings? Scale? Narrative? After a very insightful comment posted on my last entry, I got to thinking about this topic.

The loneliness of Hopper’s figures was a key aspect of the mood in his paintings. The unpopulated paintings are very open for interpretation, either as outdoor still lifes, or arrangements of line, surface, and volume, or any number of things. When he adds people, what happens? His unpopulated paintings aren’t without evidence of human life–they never appear post-apocalyptic, for example, but what a difference a lone figure can make. There’s a new level of sadness conveyed, or perhaps not sadness but pregnant ambiguity.

I have three options regarding figures.

1. Add several figures in some form of interaction.
2. Remove all figures, and have an unpopulated building-scape.
3. Have a single figure, the man in the window, and remove the man on the bench.

The first option is inviting, full of life. Theres much to be made of a crowd, both in terms of potential drama, and in terms of composition. But in order for this to work, I might need to be a better painter than I am.

The second option is also interesting, but, thinking of my goal of conveying a sense of the fantastic, a space without a human to interrupt might be more easily viewed as without tension of the right sort. This isn’t a Wyeth piece where certain objects are imbued with so much meaning, drama, tension. I need a human to show that conflict of spatial identities that makes up the fantastic.

The third, for me, is the most interesting, the most full of mystery. Would could the lone figure, the shirtless sentry, be looking at? Theres no one else in the scene. What is he retreating from? What is going on in his mind? This is the key question. By putting a figure alone, all of the drama of the “scene” is mental. That mental state is informed by his environment, but his presence also interjects some value into the space.

As for the execution, I am trying to be looser with this one to showcase the humidity and the twilight and the the age. I have so far worked only with my quill. I am going to see how much I can do in this fashion. Here it is with some preliminary washes.

Thanks for reading.

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Twilight in Old San Juan Day Two: Finishing the Drawing and Reading Pavese

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After a brief hiatus for Father’s Day and some work that carried on through the evenings, I am getting back into this painting of Old San Juan. Though it’s only been a week, I had to spend time reacquainting myself with the subject, so I focused on the drawing again. I cleaned up the left side and drew in more of the details, then masked some of the areas I want to focus on later.

I am finally ready to start painting, which I won’t get to tonight. I am still wondering what to do in the bottom left corner. The two figures in the photo are actually me and my older daughter, and our presence doesn’t quite fit the mood I want to convey. I will have to put some different figures in, I think. I will make that decision once I start painting. I don’t want to overdraw, and if I don’t move on, I will.

In thinking about that decision, I have been thinking about Pavese, and how well he sets a scene. I will quote one of my favorite beginnings to a novel. Here is the first paragraph of Pavese’s Among Women Only.

I arrived in Turin with the last of the January snow, like a street acrobat or a candy seller. I remembered it was carnival time when I saw the booths and the bright points of acetylene lamps under the porticoes, but it was not dark yet and I walked from the station to the hotel, peering out from under the arches and over the heads of the people. The sharp air was biting my legs and, tired as I was, I huddled in my fur and loitered in front of the shop windows, letting people bump into me. I thought how the days were getting longer, that before long a bit of sun would loosen the frozen muck and open up the spring.

In such a short space Pavese lays out the narrator’s character, the city, and the mood, not just in the present scene, but also for those to come. Look at the last sentence: “loosen the frozen muck and open up the spring.” This is typical Pavese. At first blush, this appears hopeful–the coming spring–but a spring of loosened muck is as foreboding as it is promising. Sure enough, within the first few pages, a failed suicide is revealed, and the narrator gets caught up in the sad affairs of a group of rich women.

This is the trick that I one day hope to accomplish in a painting–all of the details coming together to convey the depth and complexity of mood in a space and the lives that occupy it.

Happy Fathers Day

Recently my Dad and I were talking about Giorgio Morandi, still life composition, and the relationship between the representational and the abstract. One of the things that struck me about Morandi was the placement of the objects and the amount of open space. My dad and I wondered what close cropping of Morandi-like still life objects might look like, so we tried an experiment with some photos I had on my phone. My dad really liked the close cropping, so for Fathers Day, I decided to paint a small watercolor for him with just such an arrangement. Here it is in stages, Dad. Happy Fathers Day.

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Twilight in Old San Juan: Starting a New Painting

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The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
-H.P. Lovecraft from The Call of Cthulhu

Two years ago we went to Puerto Rico with the kids and some close friends, and spent some time wandering through Old San Juan. We often returned to this square. For some reason, it was the only place I could seem to orient myself to. Fortunately our friends had been several times, so knew the way around. Old San Juan was a fascinating city of many identities: city of soldiers, rum, and pirates, but also city of churches; cruise ship destination with high end shopping, but also a source for cheap tourist kitsch like body part shaped shot glasses that said Puerto Rico; home to delicious fancy restaurants, but also cheap food, and even Ben and Jerry’s; a city built for walking, but full of cars upon cars in streets to small to accommodate them (not to mention the afternoon trash pick-ups with trucks made for the narrow streets, which led to both general cleanliness and a lingering odor of trash in the humid air as the truck lumbered by); a city loaded with wandering tourists, but also people in doorways and upper windows who called the place home. In short, it was a place of many spatial identities superimposed and syncretized, with an underlying feeling of the fantastic. H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood would have felt just as at home here as a Travel Channel camera crew.

Painting the scene photographed above is going to be a challenge. The drawing alone was a challenge, and there will be so much to incorporate and decide on once I get to painting. I am sure I will learn a lot from this not only on the technical side, but also in terms if capturing those syncretized and layered identities in a way that can be felt by the viewer. I also think I want to draw out that fantastical element (hence the creepy Lovecraft quote). This one may be slow to develop. For now, here’s my rough framing drawing.

Thanks for reading.

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Some Thoughts on Plein Air Painting and Spatial Identity

On my way home from work the other day, I got to thinking about what makes for a compelling plein air painting, as I’ve set a goal for myself to enter at least one plein air event next year. I want to be comfortable enough with my plein air painting by then that I’ll be able, if given the opportunity, to produce some works I’ll be pleased with during the event.

There are the usual things that make a painting compelling that would apply to plein air as well—composition, color, value, motif, etc—but might there be something else? The immediacy of the experience, or the space, would necessarily be a chief component, but how can that be characterized? I got to thinking about the importance of our relationship to the spaces we occupy, and how fundamental that is to our sense of self. Our own identity, as individuals and as a culture or society, is so closely linked to the identity of the spaces we occupy. Put another way, human identity, cultural identity, and spatial identity are three of probably many sides of the same prism.

We see this often play out when one culture/nation comes in to colonize another. I wrote a paper on this in college that has since been lost in which I explored how the English, in expanding their interest in Ireland in the 16th and 17th century, made a concerted effort to change the way the Irish though of the space they occupied. The Irish were, if I remember correctly, roaming, with a fluid understanding of property ties. They couldn’t be mapped, they couldn’t be pinned down, and thus couldn’t easily be conquered. So, the English offered Lordships to powerful Irish leaders, in essence tying them not only to the crown, but more importantly, to the land. They were now responsible for a space, which was a fundamental mindset and cultural shift. This may not be quite right upon closer inspection by a better scholar, but I’m posting it anyway because it’s a reflection of a line of thinking I was developing that became foundational for my fiction.

As I was thinking through this, and its relationship to visual art, my thoughts were taking a familiar turn. It was very much a case of déjà vu. When I got home I poked around my computer, recalling vaguely that I once wrote something about spatial identity and art with a friend, not sure what I would find. It turned out that we had conceived of a whole book on the subject, which we intended to call Between the Motif and Me: Spatial Identity in Literature, Art, and Architecture, and had started drafting an introduction.

I mentioned in my last post that I’m looking at three different directions at once. This concept of spatial identity is one of them, so I’m posting some of what I found. What you’ll see below is only half of the intro to the book. The sections on videogames and architecture were not complete enough to include at this time, though I may return to them, or at least post excerpts—such as a good passage from Tadao Ando—at a later time.

Thanks for reading.

Between the Motif and Me: Spatial Identity in Literature, Art, and Architecture

 By Corey Aber and J. Patrick Chu

Introduction: Surveying the Landscape 

In 1895 Monet told two Norwegian interviewers: “To me, the motif is an insignificant factor; what I want to reproduce is what lies between the motif and me.” He wanted to paint “the air in which the bridge, the house, and the boat are to be found—the beauty of the air around them—and that is nothing less than impossible.”[i] Monet was ultimately referring to the feeling of a space, its underlying spatial identity.

As impossible as Monet claimed it is to actually do so, the attempt to capture and/or create spatial identity is a fundamental element of literature, art, and cinema, not to mention architecture, which itself is the active creation of meaningful space (in fact, the field of architecture raises additional questions of the possibility of creating a spatial identity from scratch).

We see this attempt, for example, in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Seascapes” series of photographs—a collection of black and white views of ocean and sky in different parts of the world. This series deals with spatial identity and the passage of time. For his exhibit at the Hirshorn Museum in Washington DC in 2006, he described his motivation for the project:

“One New York night in 1980, during another of my internal question-and-answer sessions, I asked myself, ‘Can someone today view a scene just as primitive man might have?’ The images that came to mind were of Mount Fuji and the Nachi Waterfall in ages past. A hundred thousand or a million years ago would Mount Fuji have looked so very different than it does today? I pictured two great mountains; one, today’s Mount Fuji, and the other, Mount Hakone in the days before its summit collapsed, creating the Ashinoko crater lake. When hiking up from the foothills of Hakone, one would see a second freestanding peak as tall as Mount Fuji. Two rivals in height—what a magnificent sight that must have been! Unfortunately, the topography has changed. Although the land is forever changing its form, the sea, I thought, is immutable. Thus began my travels back through time to the ancient seas of the world.”[ii]

These struggles of Monet and Sugimoto shed some light on the nature of spatial identity. It is not a resolute object or property. Rather, it is a spectrum that ranges from the inherent to the imposed.

In literature, perhaps the most explicit investigation of the spectrum of spatial identity comes in fantastic fiction and strange tales where the conflict often arises when a new identity is imposed upon either the inherent identity of a space, or an older identity of the space. Ghosts themselves tend to represent the remnant identity of a space.  Let us take for example Algernon Blackwood’s tale “The Willows” in which two travelers encamp on a small island in the midst of the Danube and find themselves in a precarious, haunted place. In the story, there are suspected spiritual entities that live in a parallel world that meets the human world at this place. These entities take as victims those who disturb their space.

This island is, in the words of the narrator, “a place unpolluted by men, kept clean by the winds from coarsening human influences, a place where spiritual influences were within reach and aggressive.”[iii] In other words, it is a place whose ancient sacred spatial identity is dominant and ever-present. The travelers disturb this by superimposing the practical identity of a modern campsite.

Blackwood embeds what borders on a manifesto for the concept of spatial identity directly in the narrator’s summary description of his feelings towards the disintegrating island:

“Small things testified to the amazing influence of the place, and now in the silence around the fire the allowed themselves to be noted by the mind. The very atmosphere had proved itself a magnifying medium to distort every indication: the otter rolling in the current, the hurrying boatman making signs, one and all had been robbed of its natural character—as it existed across the border in that other region. And this changing aspect I felt was new not merely to me, but to the race. The whole experience whose verge we touched was unknown to humanity at all. It was a new order of experience, and in the true sense of the word unearthly.”[iv]

What we see here is not only the will of the inherent, or ancient, identity of a space, but also the transformative power of that identity on the mind and all things it encounters.

This notion is not limited to rural space (in fact, urban fantastic literature was especially popular in the latter 19th century[v]) nor is it limited to the fantastic. It is no accident that the three urban types Walter Benjamin theorized—the flaneur, the badaud, and the detective—are defined by their unique ways of interacting with their spaces. Briefly, the flaneur is the stroller, the one who casually wanders the streets with the power of distracted receptivity, taking in everything he sees even without necessarily realizing it. The badaud is the gawker, the one who sits back and observes without actually participating physically. The detective puts the skills of the flaneur and the badaud into direct action, using their powers to process an environment and the activities contained therein to reach some conclusion and to affect some result.[vi] Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd” is often used to illustrate these urban types because the narrator takes on each role, first gazing out through a coffee shop window onto the crowd outside; then opting to pass within the crowd; and finally, pursuing one strange man, a potentially sinister figure, through the crowded intersections and back alleys over the course of the night.

The urban types and the relationship between the environment and the occupants are better explored in Virginia Woolf’s short story “Kew Gardens,” in which the space itself is also a character no less significant than the humans, with both humans and space practicing flanerie. The disembodied narration opens with a physical mood-setting description of the place that shifts into the space itself moving. At first the space is an object, something acted upon: “From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals…The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze.”

Within the same paragraph, the properties of the space start to act: “The light fell either upon the smooth grey back of a pebble, or the shell of a snail with its brown circular veins, or, falling into a raindrop, it expanded with such intensity of red, blue and yellow the thin walls of water that one expected them to burst and disappear.”

At the end of the same paragraph leading into the start of the next, the action shifts again, this time into the behavior of humans: “Then the breeze stirred rather more briskly overhead and the colour was flashed into the air above, into the eyes of the men and women who walk in Kew Gardens in July. / The figures of these men and women straggled past the flower bed with a curiously irregular movement not unlike that of the white and blue butterflies who crossed the turf in zig-zag flights from bed to bed.”[vii]

Woolf’s technique is highly cinematic in that it gives a complete, equally focused sense of space and its occupants, the blend of all of which creates the particular spatial identity.

John Sturges uses the same technique frequently in his 1955 film Bad Day at Black Rock about a stranger, John J. MacReedy (Spencer Tracy) who comes to the isolated California desert town of Black Rock shortly after WWII to pass on a medal to the father of a Japanese American soldier who saved his life. Some of the townsmen, led by Reno (Robert Ryan) are suspicious of MacReedy’s presence in the town as soon as he arrives, and only become more so when he starts asking questions about Adobe Flats and the Japanese farmer, Komoko, the murder of whom the townsmen are trying to keep secret.

Shortly after Reno discovers that MacReedy is looking for Komoko, he and the townsmen meet on the railroad tracks in a scene that exemplifies Sturges’ technique of prioritizing people and place equally. As the key villains (Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, and the others) gather to discuss whether or not they should kill MacReedy, Sturges uses a series of shots in the center of town on the railroad tracks. These shots arrange the human characters geometrically, standing in different planes of view, the same way the lines of the telegraph poles, railroad tracks, signs, buildings, and horizon are used. Sturges creates an arrangement of lines and shapes, that, when combined produce an effect, a mood. As viewers, we are aware that the characters are subject to the harsh environment in which they live, the physical exemplification of which serves to highlight the central element on which the plot and the dramatic tension hinges—the murder of Komoko. This murder is based partially on his race—his cultural identity in the aftermath of WWII—and partially on the environment—Reno thought he had sold him barren land, only to find out later that it contained water.

These non-prioritizing shots give the impression that we are watching the town, the landscape, itself in action. In setting up the shots the way he does, Sturges also further urges the viewer to try to insert himself into the tight visual arrangements, making the landscape both menacing and fascinating.

To give these framed shots weight, Sturges balances them with an investigative character, someone to encourage the viewer to use imagine himself to be a participant, moving first from badaud, or typical watcher of the film, to flaneur, a concerned watcher interested in the goings-on in the town and landscape, and finally to detective, a watcher concerned with the outcome, piecing together elements of plot and place to look for clues to the outcome and to wish certain events to happen.

It is these techniques within a film that serve also to influence the cinemagoer outside the film. Italo Calvino describes the influence of the cinema on his own life:

“Every day, walking up and down the main street of my small town, I’d only have eyes for the cinemas…I would already know in advance what films were showing in all five theatres, but my eye would be looking for the posters they put up to announce the next film, because that was where the surprise was, the promise, the anticipation that would keep me excited through the days to come.”[viii]

The mere thought of a film and the expectation for it drives the cinemagoer. Its influence spreads from the celluloid world out into the streets, creating a particular, transforming gaze. It is neither the gaze of the badaud, for it is too focused, nor is it the gaze of the flaneur, as it ignores all other aspects of the city, nor is it even the gaze of the detective, because it does not seek to use its awareness of its environment to achieve any goals. It is the peculiar gaze of the cinemagoer. It is at once outward in its quest for new films, and inward in its desire to retreat into the imagination of and anticipation for the next spectacle.

Inside the cinemagoer’s head and on the screen, a relationship builds and an exploration takes place. For Calvino, the cinema “satisfied a need for disorientation, for the projection of my attention into a different space, a need which I believe corresponds to a primary function of our assuming our place in the world, an indispensable stage in any character formation.”[ix] This exploration of an imagined space translates into how we understand our own lived-in space. Our understanding of both the lived-in and the cinematic spaces—and the success of both spaces—depends on the relationship between them.

 Put another way, the spatial identity created within the film seeps out into the spatial identity of the actual world as perceived by the cinemagoer. Nowhere is this imagined interaction between person and virtual space more present than in videogames. While it is certainly possible to get lost in a painting or a photograph, only literature and film continually pose the question “how would you act in this situation?”

[…The rest of this introduction turns to videogames and architecture, but was not finished or written in a complete enough form to share at this time]


[i] From Enchatments of Air and Water by AS Byatt. Published in the Guardian on March 3, 2007).

[ii] Hiroshi Sugimoto. Exhibit Catalogue. Hirshorn Museum February 16-May 14 2006. http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu/sugimoto/seascapes/index.htm.  Example is “Sea of Japan, Rebun Island,  1996, private collection. Courtesy of the artist.”

[iii] Algernon Blackwood: The Willows  p 116 in Famous Ghost Stories Bennet Cerf. Vintage books 1944 New York, NY

[iv] Same as Above (blackwood)

[v] See Intro from Calvino’s Fantastic Literature.

[vi] Walter Benjamin, Paris in the Age of Baudelaire.

[vii] All Woolf quotes from 1st page of Kew Gardens

[viii] Italo Calvino. A cinema-goers autobiography in The Road to San Giovanni, page  38

[ix] Also calvino page 38

Outer Banks Modern: Finishing Touches and a Better Photo

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Over the past few days I have been studying this painting. Something wasn’t quite right about it. I realized that there wasn’t enough differentiation between the front of the house and the side. Since the sun was behind the clouds, I couldn’t really use a shadow side and light side approach. I needed to find something else, so I studied the lines where the front and side join. These were too neutral, so disappeared unless closely inspected. It also seemed that in too many places the siding wasn’t drawn out at the roof, again allowing the front and side to appear merged.

To fix these issues, I did the following:

1. Added a few more lines for siding shadow
2. Darkened the lines framing the windows and the trim
3. Added a small line of cobalt blue under the deck trim on the left
4. Darkened some of the set back windows
5. Brought the cloud closer to the right side of the house to give some framing for the extension of the deck.

Did these fixes work, or is there more to do here? I am not sure yet, but I am looking forward to putting this one behind me. I got a lot out of it, and feel like I took a pretty good leap forward since my last 11×14 work, the white house painting. I am comfortable with these more involved works, and feel ready to take one some new challenges. I have three directions I want to take at once for new paintings, and a bunch of new and old ideas coming together that I am anxious to get down. I will post these thoughts over the next few days as I start to bring them together and start a few new paintings.

Thanks for reading.