Artist in Residence
I'm Charles Munch, scheduled to exhibit a series of big paintings on the theme of the relationship between humans, animals, and the rest of the natural world. The show will run from January 19 through April 13. About half the paintings will be older work, completed before this show was planned. But to enrich the thematic mixture, I'm making five or six paintings especially for the Paine’s exhibition.
Painting landscapes with people and animals is second nature to me. I live in southwestern Wisconsin, an hour west of Madison, on a hilltop surrounded by woods, fields, and pasture. Wild animals and birds are everywhere, and they generally feel like my companions, even when they raid the vegetable garden. I live with domestic animals as well, four cats and a dog.
Although I am surrounded by inspiring natural scenery, I tend to paint indoors, from my imagination—which is rich, but not very detailed. I usually start with just the seed of an idea, and then nurture and gradually “grow” it into a large, complicated, and more detailed painting. Gardeners or parents probably know the pleasure in such a process. I’ll try to describe how it works for me.
My painting Two Worlds, which I finished more than a month ago, will serve as an example. I'm not sure where I picked up the germ that got me going on this project. Perhaps it originated many years ago when I painted a herd of deer trotting past a fenced feedlot full of Black Angus cattle. My idea was to contrast the wild deer’s grassy environment with the domesticated cattle’s mud. My new painting had a similar basis but, instead of the two worlds being parallel with a fence between them, the human and animal worlds overlaid one another in a cemetery with a herd of deer moving through it. I was interested in thinking about how different the cemetery looked to my eyes than to the deer’s eyes.
I usually dash down my first idea on paper using a combination of watercolor and crayon. Because the crayon resists the watercolor, I can work quickly without losing the drawing. All the main elements of my subject are here on an 8 x 10 inch scale: a variety of gravestones, several deer, a grassy lawn, and the cedars that I associate with cemeteries. Even the color harmony was starting to take shape, although it was far from resolved. The main compositional weakness, to my eyes, was the lack of movement from left to right that would accentuate the deer’s movement from right to left.
The next stage was a 16 x 20 inch oil sketch, where I gave more order to the gravestones, added a couple of deer, and, most importantly, came up with a statue that faced in the opposite direction from the deer and served as a stand-in for human presence.
Moving up to the large version—over six feet long—was the most difficult stage of all in the whole growth process because it involved major compositional changes, while at the same time refining the color. I lengthened the canvas, turned the statue into an angel, and added three more deer so that they would be clearly passing through. The curves of the willow on the left and the lawn on the right gave more compositional movement in opposition to the deer. And the taller monument at the center served as a new focal point.
So that’s how I grow a painting. Sometimes the process is easier and sometimes more difficult. The difficulties encountered in making Two Worlds were about average. I try to forget, after the painting is finished, all the effort involved in making it, such as finding just the right color for each element in the picture. For me, the main point is being happy with the result of all my trouble. In this case I was very happy.
My latest painting, Witness, has been germinating in my head for at least a year. It grew out of my long-term interest in the contrast between tame and wild as in “tame animals and wild animals” or “tame life and wild life.” Usually I work with this theme by opposing two animals or an animal and a human, but it recently occurred to me that I could investigate the same theme by opposing a tame human and a wild human. As soon as I decided to portray them as clothed and naked men, I had a vision of the clothed man threatening the naked one.
That was enough to get me drawing. I began, as I usually do, drawing quickly and in color, trying to get the idea and some of the emotions it aroused into crude visual form. I drew in my sketchbook with regular Crayola crayons and filled in the colors between the lines with watercolor. The picture is about 11 x 8 inches.
Once I’d made a beginning drawing, I started reacting to it, thinking how I could improve it, how I could make it match my feeling about the subject matter. One question I often ask myself is: What’s going on outside the boundaries of the image? Are there more elements, more characters, in this drama?
Although I sometimes go directly from the crayon/watercolor drawing to a small oil painting, in the case of Witness I next expanded the composition with another crayon/watercolor drawing (8 x 11 inches), making the two male figures subordinate to a broad landscape. I wanted to bring some wind and weather into the picture—I wanted this struggle to be occurring in a beautiful place on a perfect day.
Then I was ready to paint. As you can see, I work on an unstretched canvas tacked to the wall, partly for the simplicity of it and partly to have something solid to lean my brush against (rather than a bouncy stretched canvas). The oil painting (16 x 20 inches) is only slightly larger than the drawing. The main difference between the drawing and the painting is the spectator on the left, adding another degree of wildness. And I kept increasing the mass of the foreground trees as I realized their importance to the dramatic tension in the composition.
My next step in growing the painting was slightly atypical. Instead of moving on to a much larger, full-size realization of the image, I decided to test a new longer version on a small scale (22 x 34 inches), mainly because I wanted to give the deer more prominence. This was when it came to me that the title of the painting was Witness. I also tipped the trees (to increase the sense of wind) and added the plowed field.
I was pleased with the results of this new composition and eager to see how it looked at the large size I wanted for the Paine exhibition (48 x 74 inches). Now that I was happy with the color and layout, I spent more time getting the details of the drawing right.
After that, applying the paint was a fairly straightforward process—time-consuming but with few surprises. It’s always fun seeing the world of the painting take shape as the color is applied. Now in mid July, Witness is nearly finished. Soon I'll be putting it out of sight for a month or two so it will look fresh when I add the final touches.