Wednesday, May 21, 2014


This week I moved my oil painting setup to a corner of my attic studio and painted this brownstone there. The workspace arrangement isn't perfect: low sloping ceilings, west light, midnight blue carpet. But the atmosphere in that room is worth forcing the issue over.

I am dismayed at the way this underpainting came out, but what the hell. I'd give even odds the final picture will be a flop. Well, that's life.


Uncle Jim

Sunday, May 18, 2014


The drawing has been transferred to the panel by putting charcoal on the back of the to-size (30" x 20") copy and tracing it with a soft pencil. The resultant charcoal lines are very faint, so fixing them is a must. 

Now comes inking the linework with a mixture of ivory black and burnt umber in diluted resinous medium. This will determine how well fine-tuned the picture will be. Every stroke must be as right as I can make it. This is the part where I always fall down because, and it is a mystery that holds me post-bound, whenever I ink a line in any medium I lose my concentration mid-stroke. Frequently my eyes become unfocused and I watch, blearily detached, the nib or brush moving to the end of the line. 

Does anyone else have this problem? It's definitely a handicap, something I have to fight to control, which screws up the delicate balance of thought and instinct and impedes the natural flow of work. Inking is unpleasant for me because in no other aspect of my life is the outer edge of my basic competence so sharply seen. Yes, I've plenty of opportunity then for rueful speculation on nature's terrifying little ways. 

Oddly enough the most effective way for me to combat this is to devote a small part of my mind to listening to something soothing  and engaging, such as an attractive human voice saying something I cannot really understand. I don't want to follow a story, I just want to hear a voice I like saying things that will intrigue me if I focus on them at random for a few moments.

For years my favorite was Nancy Reagan reading MY TURN. Then Jim Ottaviani sent me some of Richard Feynman's lectures on tape and I've spent God only knows how many hundreds of hours listening to these. For a while GOD IS NOT GREAT read by Christopher Hitchens himself was a favorite, but I soon found that work done to this recording almost always came out badly.

I couldn't figure out why that was. I thoroughly enjoyed the fragments of the book I absorbed, especially when he went after a target I wanted to see bloodied. What was there in this reading that was having such an adverse effect on my work?

Finally I identified the problem: Hitchens was only pretending to be honest and objective, and the discordance between his pretense and his purpose was curdling the atmosphere around my drawing board.

 Sadder but wiser,

Uncle Jim

Friday, May 16, 2014


Here is the sketch the picture will be made from. It needs a little work; the distant hills on the left need building up, the tree anatomy needs adjusting for eye-comfort, specifically the addition of a limb added to the lefthand side, and ropes need to be added to the snare to make its functionality evident.

For once the lines of the harmonic composition template seem to me to rest in place like the ossicles of sea star: right where they should be. If that theory is correct I should be able to make this picture sing like a lyre if I can control the values properly. I'm looking forward to painting dark clouds behind the little spectator's head and seeing it pop beautifully. Today I will finish the sketch, blow it up to canvas size on the Kinko's blueprint copier and trace it on with charcoal powder. Then perhaps two days for the brownstone, a detailed underpainting in burnt umber.

Today I bought the base for an adjustable height work table and am going to build on it a large lightboxed standing/sitting drawing board. I'm also going to clear out the clutter from my attic studio and put my painting setup in there next to the drawing table. No more scampering from drawing board to light box to basement painting studio. All my life my studios have been clumsy and furnished with scavenged furniture. This one will be just what I want.

Your Uncle Jim

Thursday, May 15, 2014


Yesterday I hammered away at the composition and came up with nothing that didn’t just lie there walleyed. One wondered what was wrong with one. If there is anything more discomfiting than the pall of self-loathing that accompanies artistic impotence I hope I skip it. The dead stuff just would not come alive. For your private amusement I have scanned two of these failures.

Nothing works in either of these except for the trees in the first drawing, and they aren’t placed correctly in the frame. The approach to the snared creature is pitiful. The problem, as I see it, is the difficulty of telling the story I originally wanted to tell, which is the acquisition through low animal cunning of a hostage that possess terrible, life-ruining psychic powers… something like the living rock but more horrible because it is animal: a huge, inert swooning grub-like body, easy to trap but never to be caught, a huge mistake not yet revealed… this was the idea. The problems anecdotally were practical and logistical. How could such a thing be lured into a snare? It would be necessary to show it heavy head down… why would such a cumbersome thing be snared around its tail. That made no sense at all, and the implied “you had to be there” wasn’t going to pull this particular fat out of the fire.

The overt insanity attendant to and at the core of this exercise got to me, I think. Yesterday was just horrible, or would have been if I’d let it get to me. But my mind is very tough.

As soon as I took a step back from the slimy pink wall I saw another solution (for getting a picture painted, not for honoring the initial impulse), and that was to make it a simple, pretty picture showing clever frogs learning to be monstrous. 

Et la! Oh, stop! Just wait. You’ll see.


Uncle Jim

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Decided on 30” x 20” for the painting, mostly because I have a birch panel of those dimensions gessoed, primed and ready to go. If I make the sketch about half that size the picture will be big and blocky, susceptible to rich coloration and vivid contrasts, all smoothly worked. There must be a storybook illi quality to it. I can't match the quality of the work done by the Mormons on their sales material but I can go for second-best. I think I could have been another Vernet if circumstances were different.

 Made the grid with  horizon line at 1/4. Indicated 5/6 for disharmonic tree seasoning. The grid relates so closely to the composition of the image… the problem is going to be the creature... I can see it taking days to get that thing right.

Incidentally, last night I dreamed last night that I literally had to screw my way through 15 miles of jungle women to get to the boat.

Sincerely yours,

Uncle Jim

Monday, May 12, 2014


Just for a goof I'm going to detail the progress of what will be either a drawing or a painting. At this point I have not begun; I have only gathered the resolve to begin. I do not have any idea what the picture will be of or about.

And- folks, this is live!- just as I typed the above a notion came to me... a dim and incomplete image of a car-sized, restrained (as in tied up) something-or-other between two trees.

One tree is dead, just the rotting trunk, but still sturdy. It's limbs have been chopped off with great carelessness and its mutilated shape suggests a human figure running away in horror. The other tree is a childrens'-book-perfect sycamore... the king of trees.

The thing between them is pale orange-green, and constructed along lines that make it unrecognizeable as a fellow-earth dweller. That is, it has a shape that relates to no known animal phyla. But perhaps we can't see it aright because it is caught in some sort of snare, a snare intended to trap some much smaller animal and into which this monster has blundered. It writhes and twists to escape but cannot get purchase on anything. It is not a toothy thing but a smooth, insinuating one. Vivid colors... better to paint, probably. 

Meanwhile Adam and Eve are (this could be called The Further Adventures of Adam and Eve) in a panic. This beast is much larger than they are and terrifyingly alien. God only knows what it might do.

Adam is sharpening his knife on a rock, a very poor knife that we can see, even from this distance, is dull. Will he kill the creature or cut the ropes? Adam is completely losing his shit over this. Eve is as interested in the knife as in the monster.

Now I can see the whole setup except for the precise anatomy of the beast. Mark you, when I sat down to write this say ten minutes ago I had no idea whatsoever what the picture was going to be; the whole thing came in like a postcard. Frankly I was expecting a more long-and-drawn-out struggle... hell, that's why I undertook this diary in the first place, to document agrim battle. But whoops! The kid was born in the barracks.

If realizeable ideas came together this easily all the time life would be as sweet as sugar. Everything else would fall into place; a tidy yard, regular workouts at the Y, informed dinner-table conversation, sanity all around. 

But wait... the idea may prove to be no good! Meanwhile outside it is a warm, mellow and flowery Seattle spring morning. The lake beckons.

Yours for fresh air and sunshine,

Uncle Jim