Friday, March 14, 2014

My painting process

For a while now, I have been working on mixed media paintings that I call "Elaborate Doodles." When I tell people I call my paintings this, I get funny looks like "do you really want your work to be thought of as doodling?" Yes, I do want that. I think doodles are much more important than most people give them credit for.

Growing up, I was a good student and I think much of that was from my doodling while taking notes in class. I am a visually oriented person and I think doodling on my notes gave me a visual outlet to help cement and process the information I was receiving - this idea is somewhat reenforced on a TED Talk video I saw last year about the merits of doodling, by Sunni Brown.

Sunni Brown: Doodlers, unite


According to Sunni, the real definition of doodling is "to make spontaneous marks to help yourself think." She continues, "We think doodling is something you do when you lose focus but in reality it is a preemptive measure to stop you from losing focus." For me, doodling is even more than that. I think the act of doodling frees our mind from straining too hard for answers. It relaxes our thoughts, opening the mind to receive ideas or content from the our environment, both locally and universally. Frequently, these ideas will provide answers to questions that we may have been struggling to solve.


I figured out all of my most difficult projects and questions by first thinking as hard as I could about them for a day or so and then completely forgetting them. Making myself think about and do different things (in essence, life doodling) allowed my unconscious mind to cogitate on the details without my conscious mind getting in the way. There follows an "ah-ha!" moment where the details become instantly clear, somewhat like remembering an entire dream upon waking.

In the talk, Sunni expounds on her admiration for doodling, saying "under no circumstances should doodling be eradicated from a classroom or a boardroom or even the war room. On the contrary, doodling should be leveraged in precisely those situations where information density is very high and the need for processing that information is very high." She also says, "Because doodling is so universally accessible and it is not intimidating as an art form, it can be leveraged as a portal through which we move people into higher levels of visual literacy."

For much of my life, I produced mostly representational artwork, but I always felt like it was important for my paintings to help define themselves. Instead of trying to make a piece look exactly like the model, I wanted my mark to be visible and influenced by previous marks and colors. I found that the less I tried to control my tools, the more I was pleased with the results.

Around 2004, I started focusing on abstract paintings. These pieces were done entirely in brush work with no preliminary drawing. Then, in 2006, my buddy Browning and I were discussing the layout of a house I had lived in on Oregon Hill. I did a basic drawing of the floor plan and he put some marks on it to help clarify my responses to his questions. Soon after, I was looking at this sketch and it reminded me of some work I had done while I was studying at VCU in the 1980's. I was inspired to add to this drawing and ended up with the first of what was to become my "Elaborate Doodles."

"Untitled,"2006, sharpie on paper, 11x8.5 inches

For a time I was re-creating my original drawings into larger formats using conte crayon and oil paint on canvas.
"236,"2009, conte and oil on canvas, 64 x 35 inches
But I've always wanted to keep my paintings unique. Even though I wasn't making exact copies of the original drawings onto the paintings, I decided that I wanted the original drawing to be a part of the painting itself. Eventually, this process refined itself into the method that I currently use. Please note the images below are representative of each step, but they are all different pieces.

Creating an Elaborate Doodle


1. Draw first gesture lines - while lightly holding a sharpie, close eyes and do a loose gestural scribble, across as much of the canvas surface as possible.
Draw first gesture lines
2. Darken and define gesture lines - evaluate the gesture, join lines and go over lines with sharpie to create numerous segments of space.
Darken and define gesture lines
3. Add motion lines - using a (usually) thinner sharpie, draw repeated dashes in and across the segments of space.
Add motion lines
4. Add patterns to spaces - evaluate the drawing and allow your mind to see a pattern that is suggested by the motion lines in the segments of space. Fill in alternating spaces with first pattern then evaluate and choose another pattern or patterns for other segments of space. Turn drawing as needed to help see patterns and to decide which spaces they belong in.
Add patterns to spaces
Finish adding patterns to spaces

5. Paint washes of pigment - after the drawn patterns are finished, use paint washes in layers to accent or obscure the pattern-filled spaces.

Dark yellow wash over sharpie patterns
Light yellow and blue washes over sharpie patterns

6. Add final details - when the paint washes are dry, sharpie may be used to add detail or bring out lines that are obscured. Painted details may be added as well.
Light yellow, blue, and white washes over sharpie patterns and some details
The layers of sharpie and paint can be alternated at any time in the process as long as the paint is dry before trying to draw over it with sharpie. Sometimes, I begin with paint and then use the shapes that have developed from the wash to determine the line work in the piece. Other materials can be used if desired. I have worked some with pastels in addition to the sharpie and acrylic, but found them to be really hard on the life of the sharpies.

7. Name the piece - when no more areas of the painting appear to need work, spend some time evaluating the piece. Turn it as necessary until images and ideas begin to surface. Allow these images and ideas to play together until a title presents itself.

In "Cumuli Grazing" I see both clouds above and sheep grazing below


Elaborate Doodles are two-dimensional representations of multi-dimensional spaces and events. Lines and color are both physically and chronologically layered so that the piece becomes a record of time as well as space and mass. By allowing the painting to assist in its own creation, I feel that it is easier to access the stories, images, and memes that can be found in the universal well of creativity.