The Huntress Diana
Huntress Diana with Two Nymphs, after Paris Bordone
Oil on plaster polymer and foam | 30x60x12 inches | 2018
I am obsessed with paintings that are lost. They are moments of time ripped from our shared history. The disappearance of art can alter the trajectory of the stories we are told, stories we tell ourselves and each other. Missing spaces in history can lead to revamped histories, bias and half-truths. Or, these missing puzzle pieces can be used for good. Found, discovered and reinvented to communicate on our current timeline. I've been through enough museum repositories around the world to know much of our visual history does not exist on museum walls. However, I am inspired to bring forward past artist's stories and visions and weave them into my own personal tales, almost like mending small tears in our visual history.
I've focused on reinterpreting lost, stolen, destroyed and hidden artworks for nearly 25 years of my art career. (Sometimes, I take breaks, because we all need to experiment. Variety is the spice of life!) But, this particular piece, The Huntress Diana with Two Nymphs, after Paris Bordone, I began working on at a particularly difficult time of my life. I was beginning the early stages of grief and change of a long relationship that was ending. Grief isn't an unusual topic for artists to dive into because the artwork alone is a form of therapy and exploration. For me, it was a deep dive not only into my own grief, but a collective grief of the beauty we as a civilization have missed out on because of ignorance, greed and war. The painting this was based on was destroyed during WW2 in a fire caused by a bomb dropping on a church belfry in Germany. In addition, the artwork was a testament, a witness to the transformation of my model.
My model was transforming from a succesful gastric bypass surgery. She had lost upwards of 80 lbs at the time a figure cast was made from her body. It was a challenging process. She opened herself up for art to be created. Like, literally. She stood naked and exposed in order to have slimy, cold alginate gooped onto her body, and was then wrapped with plaster gauze. She had no idea at the time how generous her act of collaboration was in the process of my own self-discovery.
I grew up in a family where a sibling had this same surgery. I remember growing up around the perpetual cycle of shame and guilt affiliated with weight and percieved body image and worth. It was a different type of grief and one that was a life long experience for my entire family. This artwork was personal. Every single aspect was planned out from the most basic idea through to the figure casting, subject matter and oil painting. Every day was a meditation on loss while painting this piece. Loss of family, loss of dreams, loss of myself, loss of pieces of culture, loss of so many things that at times my hollow shell would sit in front of this painting and I'd swallow my tears while diving into a numb state to work through the puzzle of art. I came out stronger on the other side, not only as an artist, but as a person. Grief isn't done with me, but I now know when the wave is about to crash and I'm better prepared.
The subject matter of this painting is significant. Diana the Huntress was a powerful goddess of the wild; goddess of the hunt. This is exactly the empowering image I wanted to potray in this artwork. The process of this painting exposed vast spaces of vulerability that eventually were filled in with courage and beauty. As it should be.
Making your studio safer
Yesterday, after a 6-week battle with bronchitis, I dragged myself back to the doctor for a second visit and left with three prescriptions. I am now the owner of two inhalers and one bottle of really expensive (insurance didn't cover it) cough syrup for my non-stop coughing and wheezing. I've already noticed a difference overnight, so things are moving in the right direction.
Why am I telling you this? Because part of the reason I've been coughing and wheezing is due to prolonged exposure to odorless mineral spirits (OMS). I noticed at some point last semester, while my students were gagging from the smell of someone's open container of Sansodor, that I didn't smell anything. I had become immune to the odor, but my tongue felt numb and my lungs were aching.
Typically, I paint in my studio which has ventilation. I use Rublesol or Sansodor to thin my paints for my first layer of painting (the underpainting), then only use thinners for cleaning my brushes. For several years I have been aware of the dangers of fumes from OMS, turps and Liquin. To control my intake of fumes, I switched to using dropper bottles, controlling the amount of OMS I use, and asking students to use metal palette cups that come with those lids that stop working after a few months. This has helped to some degree. By laziness, I started rinsing my brushes in oleogel that usually lives on my palette. While I don't recommend this method now, it did help that I didn't have to open my OMS to rinse out my brushes.
Here's the good part. I'm changing my habits toward a healthier painting environment and have some good information for you on how to easily make the switch so you'll lessen your chances of having to own two inhalers and cough syrup (that isn't even the fun kind).
Part 1: Here are the basic products you'll want to avoid using as much as possible because these things give off fumes - some that go unnoticed, some you grow immune to smelling, but all of them can make you ill.
B. Odorless Turpentine
Part 2: Here is what you can replace your underpainting with, while still following the "Best Painting Practice" methods:
A. Instead of using turps to thin your paint, use only the paint and apply it thinner. This may include scrubbing the paint onto your support with a hogs hair brush. I recommend using earth colors that have the reputation of drying quickly for this stage. This means avoid alizarin crimson, or your underpainting will be wet for quite a while...
B. Paint your underpainting using matte Golden paints. Why Golden? Because they're the ones that came out with the first readable technical sheet explaining why this is a safe practice for oil painters who want to create less toxic underpaintings. Click HERE to see the link to their technical bulletin. If you use this method, I still recommend using a thin, sparse amount of matte acrylic paint and allowing it to dry up to 48 hours to make sure all the water has evaporated before putting oil paint on top of the acrylics. Bonus - you can use a quinacridone (replacement for alizarin crimson) and it's likely going to dry just as fast as any earth color in acrylics!
Part 3: Keep your brushes clean. I have never met an artist who loves cleaning their brushes. There are about two million ways to clean your brushes. I've read most of them. I'm going to cover a few of my favorite methods. If you have a favorite method that I didn't list below and it doesn't cause your lungs to feel like they're filled with tumbleweeds, good on you! Keep it up.
While you're painting:
1. Use a different brush for every color. While this isn't very helpul, if you're super-lazy at your easel, you might like this option.
2. Wipe out your brush with a towel or cloth, then swish it around in a vegetable oil. I prefer to use whichever oil is in my oil paints to keep everything working properly. I don't want to introduce a "drying oil" if my paints do not contain drying oil. For this process, I'm using plain old linseed oil. Feel free to wipe your newly cleaned brush with a cloth after the swish so you avoid adding any unwanted "fat" medium to your oil paints.
After you finish painting:
1. Wipe off your brush with a cloth or towel. Rinse your brush in any of the following:
Safflower oil, Linseed Oil (note: drying oils may stiffen your bristles), Murphy's Oil, Dawn Dish Soap (Fairy Soap), Zest it!, or Natural Turpenoid (in the green can/green label - This is a non-drying oil and needs to be completely cleaned out of your bristles or your oil painting may never dry).
I recommend putting any of these things into a glass coil jar. The good news is that the lid won't disintegrate as quickly as it does with turps!
2. Rinse/Wash out your bristles. It is important to get rid of any soap or residue lurking in your bristles that will add unwanted "mediums" to your paint.
A final wash to your brush could be with the following: Master's Brush Cleaner or any bar of non-fancy soap (Free from frangrances, added vitamins, etc.). If you've used Murphy's oil soap, or dishwashing liquid, simply rinse your brush under warm water. Reshape your brushes after you wash them and let them dry.
*Folks at the Florence Art Academy like to swirl their clean bristles in their own spit, shape the bristles, wrap them in a tiny piece of paper towel and let them dry. (Eww! And...it works.)
A couple of side notes:
1. Do not use acrylic brushes for oil paint. The two should never meet. However, if you use acrylic brushes in oil, they are forever oil brushes. If you use an oil brush in acrylic paint...well, that sucks.
2. Remember those rags I was talking about? These are the MOST DANGEROUS part of painting, with exception of eating your paint and drinking your OMS. The best way to manage these rags in a studio is to get an airtight container, fill it with a couple inches of water, throw used rags, paper towels and gloves in the container and put a lid on it.
Oil + rags + air = fire
This is a real danger that can easily be averted. I purchased a small aluminum bin with a lid from Lowe's Hardware store and caulked the bottom so it wouldn't leak. Get yours at your favorite store. Fill the bottom with a couple of inches of water. I empty my bin every couple of weeks. I'll put on a pair of gloves, dump all the wet mess into a plastic bag and bring it out to the dumpster immediately. When visitors leave half-used bottles of water in my studio, I just dump them into the can. Adding more water to oil rags can't hurt.
I hope this helps to keep you healthier, your studio safer and prevents others around you from getting ill from paint fumes.
Paint on, rockstars!
Want to read more? Here's a 2-part article with more information:
Part 1 - https://www.trac2019.org/…/painters-toxicity-part-1-by-dav…/
Part 2 - https://www.trac2019.org/2019/…/02/painters-toxicity-part-2/
Still on Facebook and want to be part of an active community of paint-problem solvers? Or, have a specific question related to oil painting? Follow "Best Painting Practices". It's a great resource of non-stop information!
End of the semester
I teach so many classes throughout Houston (at 3 schools, my private studio and 2 art guilds just this semester). Last night, I finished out the semester of my Narrative Portrait class @artleaguehouston . I’m always sad to say goodbye. I’ll miss these folks, their hard work, and bizarrely wonderful conversations! There are few classes where I get to see the same group go from picking up a paintbrush to producing good artwork. The journey is the destination! 💖
BTW, I can’t wait to work with the folks at Art Students League - Denver, starting in February!
The artful copy @ Rice
Tonight, we celebrated our final class of the semester. Everyone’s work looks great! Many are still works in progress and heading toward becoming beautiful works of art. This class flew by!
First look at metalpoint drawings
Tonight, students experimented with various ways to tone primers. Next week, they’ll begin a two day process of color.
SilverpOint Day 2/4 @ Was-h
In just a few minutes I’ll be teaching one of my favorite new mediums - silverpoint! I’m mixing up Rublev’s Traditional Silverpoint Ground right now (You can find it on the Natural Pigments website.) Tonight, we’ll work on toning ground. Photos to come!
Foundations of painting
Value scales, seeing and representing shapes, value scales and drapery (counting) are essential skills I work on with my beginning painters. We have a tiny bit of time every week to pack in a ton of information. At the end of the day it’s all about practice!
Paintings in progress
Narrative portrait Painters are back in action with the goal of completing two paintings this semester. I’m a fan of documenting work as it’s being created. Here are some process shots from tonight’s class.
Narrative PortRait Painter's Critique
I love everything about this class. Today was our first critique of the semester. For those new to “Crits”, they are a great time to learn while looking at other people’s work. I think critiques can oftentimes be the most important part of the learning process.
We ask basic questions:
What are we looking at?
What palette are you using if you had to define it in terms of color theory?
What is working in this painting?
How is the narrative part of the story reading to the painter vs. the audience?
What isn’t working? How can it be better?
what technical aspects (often drawing, color or values) need to be altered to accommodate the painting?
At this point, none of these works are complete. Instead they exist in various stages of problem-solving and we get fresh eyes and recommendations during the process to help better the outcome.
Sometimes critiques have their challenges because they’re exposing a personal process, but when students are open to engaging in them, the speed of their learning is clearly expedited. As an instructor, I learn new things from my students all the time. They keep my eyes trained.
This class in particular is really funny (could be all the wine?). I’m pretty certain a comedy show, or stage play could easily be written about it based solely on the random conversations we have. Their work is pretty stellar too. 😉
Loving Master copies!
what do you get when you mix painting students from all skill levels with instructions to paint copies of amazing paintings? Fun. You get lots of fun! Tonight, we even had wine, cheese, cheesecake and grapes during our first class critique.
While many students shy away from critiques, I embrace them because every single painting has a lesson to teach. Little golden nuggets of reminders that seep slowly into our painting practice...
This is a GREAT group, working hard and pushing through. I can’t wait to see the finished works!
p.s. Color charts make me want to cry with joy!
Laura Spector is a visual artist and art instructor living in Houston, always willing to travel.