I had a tube of gray oil paint in my studio for years and I’ve almost never touched it. Why paint with gray when there are so many color combinations that give you a much more interesting shade of gray? True-gray is, of course, a 50/50 mix of white and black, but out in the real world, we see grays in a rainbow of colors … just look at all of the shadows around you.
I recently finished a series of four oil paintings that I created together to explore many different ways to paint gray. The paintings are two views of two sculptures at the Portland Museum of Art, and each one is painted with only two colors, plus white.
This series is special to me partly because this was a lot of fun to paint, but also because it was really challenging for me, and because of the special memories attached to these sculptures, which I first saw ten years ago. This series accomplishes several artistic goals that have been floating around in my mind for years.
First and foremost, my goal was to explore shades of gray with oil paint. I spent a delightful summer afternoon going back to my roots, painting a few color charts using the various tubes of reds, oranges, greens and blues in my studio. After a very scientific decision-making process (staring at them for a long time), I chose four combinations that I think make especially interesting shades of gray:
- alizarin crimson and oxide of chromium (red and green)
- alizarin crimson and cerulean blue (red and blue)
- cadmium red light and oxide of chromium (orange and green)
- cadmium red light and cerulean (orange and blue)
Each painting uses one only one of these combinations, and white, which means that two of the paintings use the same blue, two use the same red, and so on. In retrospect, it might not have been the best idea for one of the paintings to use only primary colors (red and blue), but as a lover of the color purple, I think it still works in this exploration of rich grays.
Two of the paintings are of one sculpture, and two are of another. Two of the paintings are a full-length view of that sculpture, and two are a bit more zoomed-in. Two of these paintings came together easily and were finished a while ago. Two of these paintings were left unfinished for months while I puzzled over how to finish them. I have been endlessly fascinated by the endless combinations of pairs among the set of four.
Another one of my goals was to finally do something with a few favorite photos that I took ten years ago. The Portland Museum of Art has a gorgeous gallery that is filled with sunlight and sculptures by Franklin D. Simmons. Each marble figure is magnificently carved, and they each look especially beautiful to me in the light of the floor-to-ceiling windows.
I saw this gallery for the first time ten years ago, in Fall 2007, on a family trip to Maine to visit my grandparents, who had a timeshare in Ogunquit that week. Having been to so many museums around the world, it’s a rare treat to visit a museum for the first time, and an even rarer treat to visit a museum with my grandfather, who is also an oil-painter and photographer. I remember being blown away by the beautiful marbles in the sun-filled Simmons gallery, and he and I took several photos. He has also experimented with how to make interesting shades of gray in oils, and he has a beautiful painting that uses only cadmium red light and cerulean, another inspiration for this series.
A week before that trip, I had started dating the man who is now my husband. I remember talking to him on the phone, looking out over Ogunquit’s Perkins Cove. Brian’s a fellow art-lover, so it was a real treat to show him the Simmons gallery when he and I took a daytrip to Portland the following year.
Brian is an enormously valuable studio assistant, and his opinions on my works in progress have become an essential part of my system. It’s so hard to decide “how much” to paint a painting … in other words, how to decide when the painting is finished. We have had ten years of fascinating debates about this, including a memorably heated debate over the Red/Green painting in this series, which he counts as one of my best paintings. When I saw how incredibly disappointed Brian was after I changed a part of that painting that he really liked, I learned a lot about how much painting can be a team sport. Fortunately, he still likes how the painting came out, and his many valuable insights really helped me to finally finish this series.
Here are the four paintings in the series ‘Simmons Sculptures.’
Please click on the thumbnails to view the whole painting:
When I got started on each painting, I took a photo-memo of each painting with its colors so I would keep my combos straight.
These paintings are based on photographs that I took in 2007 and 2008 of two marble sculptures by Franklin D. Simmons (1839-1913), Medusa and Promised Land. Please click on the links to visit their pages on the Portland Museum of Art’s website.