Friday, February 14, 2014

Follow the Path of Inspiration

The painting called Perserverence, shown further down the page, began as an exploration of texture and ended in a complete theme. It underscores how one has to be aware of possibility, letting things unfold without hurry, having the courage to follow turns and accidents as they occur, while not really knowing where they will end. Many times it ends as an interesting study that joins others in a drawer. Occasionally, they come to fruition like this particular painting, pushing beyond the limits of where we thought we could go, whether it be subject matter, technique or style. 

Bruce Kerr Art - 2015
Bark Study, 11 x 14
Acrylic on Masonite
A number of years ago I was visiting family in the Pittsburgh area and their yard was filled with amazing pine trees sheathed in bark of varying hues of deep red, burnt siennas, grays, ambers, blues and greens. I found a particularly intriguing slice of bark laying on the ground at the base of a tree, which I decided to render. I had a gesso panel with me as well as my acrylics and started exploring the color and texture of the bark. I let my eyes run over the rough and tortured surface, leaping down into the perfectly round insect borings, out again over the checkered surface and through the valleys running between the individual blocks that made up the tree’s rough outer hide.

The study itself started with a series of thin washes of ochre to give the painting a base and a bit of tooth for the following layers to adhere to. For painting on gesso board, I sometimes thin my acrylics out to a watercolor consistency, allowing me to put down a series of quick drying luminous glazes that provide a really great base layer. I then used a small sea sponge to place down a layer of random texture, not so thick that it obscured the warm layers behind it, but enough to add visual interest. I then worked in areas of more solid color and drew in the forms of the bark blocks extending out to the edge of the drawing. I finished the sketch with some opaque whites and grays to simulate the reflective blue color appearing in the woody finish. The result is shown at left. I found the original piece of bark so interesting that I still have it today, stored along with the studies shown here in a flat file. 

Bruce Kerr Art - 2015
Sawn Log Study, 9 x 12, Graphite
Still intrigued with the challenges of rendering bark, I did a follow-up drawing of a chain-sawed log that I pulled from the wood pile behind our house. The mechanical texture left by blade passing through the wood contrasting with the rough surface of the bark caught my eye and made for an interesting exercise. The result is at right.  

Several weeks after starting the process of studying bark, I was still not thinking of a painting, choosing to let it gestate while I gathered more reference. My wife and I were walking through a local forest preserve and discovered a Green Stink Bug making its way up the side of the tree. We watched as it slowly traversed the cavernous gullies in the bark. It made me think how if we humans were reduced to its size, this daily walk for this insect would be a challenge for even skilled mountaineers. It makes sense that it evolved wings to make the whole enterprise much easier! We took took a series of photos to capture its struggles and the sense of scale of the bug against the tree and set them aside for future reference.

Returning home, I went back to the wood pile for a bit more inspiration and came across another log that looked like it had started to sprout a limb before the tree was felled. From around this stump, the bark had pulled away, revealing a weird moonscape so I brought the log into the house and set about examining it with a magnifying glass. While doing some sketches of this particular log, reflecting back on the images we took in the forest as well as the earlier studies, the final image started to come together in my head. 

Bruce Kerr Art - 2015
Composition Sketches
To capture the sense of vertical drama I had seen with the Stink Bug's climb, I chose a 12 x 36" format. Gessoing the Masonite surface with a roller, I put down three layers, sanding between each coat for a smooth finish with just a bit of tooth. I spent a fair amount of time completing a series of pencil and colored pencil sketches to get the composition just right, since it was an odd working size. 

Perserverence, Copyright Bruce Kerr
Perserverence, 12 x 36
Acrylic on Masonite
The final result is shown right. The piece was done with acrylic, using a bit of retarder mixed in to do the main blending in the large woody area in the middle. I then painted my details on top of that using opaque mixes. For the bark, I used the sponge technique I had practiced with my smaller piece, adding in the details to the bark, leaving the rendering of the Stink Bug itself until the final phases of the painting. I then varnished it with a semi-gloss finish to bring out the color.

Since completing this painting, I have had a great regard for the silent sentinels that make up our forests, standing as mute testimony to the passage of time. I often will put my hands against them, feeling the sun warm their cold skin as they rise from their winter torpor or cool in the shadows they create as respite from summer’s hot breath. They are some of the oldest living things on Earth, with some species suspected of being in excess of 30,000 years old. To their kind, our brief Mayfly lives flit by around their bases as they push their leafy arms skyward towards the sun.

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