Sometimes I’m working on a painting, revising and tweaking and changing colors, and it is just not happening. All the draperies, wallpaper, extra characters, or funky appliances in the world won’t make it work. The problem obviously lies much deeper, and the thing is starting to feel destined for the scrap bin. I wrote about flailing in this manner in a previous post, but that time I had waited until after the painting in question had already landed safely and had even found a home.
One of those problem paintings has been hanging around my studio for over a year now, a reject from my Manet covers series which I’ve since finished and shown and published a book about. In that series, I had restaged some of my favorite Manet paintings in mid-century suburban America, using characters I gleaned from various vintage magazines ads.The Waitress, 1879: For my cover of this work, I found the right fifties’ lady holding and contemplating a serving tray, three people turned mostly away from the viewer, a musician, and a sort-of-dancing spunky gal sporting capri pants. I always work out the compositions first as charcoal drawings, then I figure out the shapes of the panels and what fabrics to cover them with.
Sure, the six-figure composition was a little unwieldy and sprawling, but that felt true to the wide-open American suburbia that these people had to inhabit. The housewife serving the beer was in a much larger space than her Parisian counterpart, but her domesticized world was so much smaller in every other way.
The deep expanse of the living room felt kind of claustrophobic with all those people squished in the foreground. Which is what I was going for. So far so good.
Out with the yellow table! It was pretty and everything, but it had to go. Then the guy’s suit went from blue to green and he acquired a hat. What’s with his friend? I’d chosen her for her weird snail hat, and now I had no idea what to do with her. Unruly, the lot of them. Except maybe the guy at the piano. I kind of had a crush on him, but I couldn’t decide how to decorate his little corner.
The deadline for the show came and went. I had plenty of paintings for it without this one, so it went unfinished into the painting rack, where it sat for about six months. When I finally pulled it back out, one look told me it was never going to work out as I’d planned it. So I unbolted and separated its two halves, and then got ruthless with the white paint. I spared only the areas of fabric that formed figures, and not even all of them made it.
Then I put the two panels away again, hoping I would forget about those awkward, unwieldy characters and their strange preoccupations. Forget about the original Manet, too. These would be just some bits of ephemera I could riff off of when I needed a new bit of something for my brain to chew on.
Brain-chewing day finally arrived last week. I decided that this lady needed a floor to ground her in a world. I’d bought a chalk-line for the specific purpose of making perspective lines, and I was nerdily excited to break it out for the first time. A couple of tacks where the vanishing points go, and chalk away! Fun!
I knew immediately what color her new, clean, streamlined, tiled universe needed to be. Sometimes the technical, repetitive task of filling in dozens of receding squares is soothing and satisfying, clearing my mind and letting me enter the world of the painting.
The next day I pulled out her friend and gave her a chalkline grid, too.
I found an interesting receding chevon tile pattern in an advertisement that I’m replicating within the grid. Turquoise is her color. Beyond that, I don’t know where this is going. I’ll figure out their new stories and add the rest of their surroundings as I get to know them. Stay tuned.