A few years ago - cannot believe it's been that long, I found a yard of bright blue canvas in the scrap pile of a fabric store somewhere in Virginia. I thought it might be interesting to paint a portrait of an elephant with vibrant colors on it. This was around the time clear gesso became popular, so there was a wave of interest in painting on any surface that could be gessoed... well at least that was what was going on in my sketch books.
After I picked up some stretcher bars at a local art store, I stretched this beautiful brilliant blue canvas over the bars, and covered the canvas with Winsor Newton's clear gesso... I couldn't wait for the brillant blue surface to be dry and ready for my vibrant elephant.
Although Winsor Newton's clear gesso dries clear -- it also dries a little milky if you are slathering it all over a colored canvas... Slathering is the key word. I believe one coat would have worked fine, but in this case, the clear gesso did not dry clear and there was a coat of milky white... My vision of an elephant faded, and the canvas became a questionable experiment tossed off to the side.
Flash forward to July 2014... I was standing in front of large aquariums at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, watching kelp sway back and forth. Schools of sardines swirling in and out, pushing past rockfish, surf perches, and other common pacific coast fish that call Kelp forests home. If you have ever been to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, you will understand what I'm talking about -- the magic awe of the great ocean is artificially created in those aquariums. If you haven't been, perhaps these photos may help illustrate what I experienced:
Maybe it was the scale of the kelp forests, or the expressions of the fish watching you watch them, that caused me to fall in a trance. I just sat there taking it all in -- the movement, the moment, the water, the colors, the shapes, and their eyes, all in. It was, with a lack of better expression, a very inspiring experience. This was probably the first time I had ever noticed kelp as kelp, and not just some gross seaweed that washed up on to the beach.
Back at the hotel room --- well, let's be honest, on the ride back to the hotel room as my boyfriend drove, I started sketching out what I had seen, drawing the images that had been burned into my memory. Images that fueled ideas, beauty and inspired my pencil to move. Like so...
A week or so later, with a return to Arizona and a sketchbook full of ideas.. I found myself sitting in my studio starring at a blank white canvas that was to hold the answer to my next masterpiece... but it was silent. There was no visual story calling to be created on this blank white canvas, no lines to be discovered, and no color. It was empty, lifeless, and I felt bored.
Like all artists... or like all hoarding artists, I have stacks, boxes, etc. of art supplies. Every piece of "trash" can be recycled into a mixed media painting, every broken pencil has a story to scribble, and every "failed experiment" may speak again... looking over at the stack of "failed" paintings, I saw my blue canvas.
Over the last year, I had revisited the clear gesso - colored canvas approach and successfully created an entire series of River fish on colored canvas embracing the milky result. This blue canvas was even tossed in the mix of potentially being covered with blue and green abstract fish -- but it never seemed right. It had been silent, unresponsive to any pattern of fish until that day, when I was sitting in my studio being bored -- my blue canvas suddenly woke up.
Looking over at it, I immediately saw a kelp stalk contrasting against the bright blue background. The color of the canvas reminded me of the aquariums, and I fell back into the memory of sitting in awe at the Monterey Aquarium.
That afternoon, I let my blue canvas transform into the start of my next masterpiece...
Remembering back at the aquarium, not only did I want to capture in my painting the beautiful compositions of fish swimming and kelp swaying, but I also wanted to harvest the feeling of awe. When a child discovers something new for the first time, something that takes their breath away -- you see the raw excitement wash over them. Being in front of these kelp forests for the first time, that raw, childish excitement encompassed my soul... that unfiltered, unaltered, unbiased thrill of exploring, watching and amusement took over. As adults, we sometimes forget what it feels like to be excited, or perhaps we forget to let ourselves be excited, but in that moment, I didn't forget. I was embracing it.
To illustrate that feeling, I leaned towards using primary yellow for the kelp, and primary blues for the fish to create a stylized experience. I choose outlines to mimic coloring books, and made cartoon fish, to enhance the fun -- deliberately ignoring any serious details or traditional assumptions.
And slowly over the next few weeks, Swaying Kelp was finished.
This painting became the start of something new -- and months after, I am still covering stretcher bars with colored canvas in order to make more kelp forest paintings. Each stylized, with bold primary colors, mimicking my experience, but not "word for word." This, like most series I start, is of course... a slow work in progress.
To see the series as it progresses, visit the Ocean life gallery. As new paintings are completed (and properly photographed!), I will be posting them there. Swaying Kelp is available for purchase here.