18 December 2014

War Progression

War Progression #1–4

After finding a great photo of a soldier walking down a road, completely loaded with gear, my brain started developing a loose narrative for him and his experience during the war. When I say "my brain" I'm referring to my subconscious collating a lot of the research I'd been ingesting and presenting me with ideas I still don't have a complete understanding of.

Is this one soldier's progression during the war? Is it a physical or psychological progression? Both? Does it represent soldiers in a broader sense? Is it the progression of the war itself? All wars? Is it my own psychological progress while spending nine months on this WWI painting project? These paintings could represent all of those, and any "interpretations" I offer would only be retroactive; as much as I "planned" the compositions, colours, and techniques used in them, they weren't as consciously planned out, metaphorically or symbolically, as, say the three paintings of Toys or Hangin' on the Old barbed Wire (among a few others).

Initial drawings.

Photoshop tests.

The ideas my brain presented were these: #1 would be rather straight-forward; #2 would have a double image and a cut in the canvas which I stitch up with red thread; #3 would be utter chaos, stylistically; and #4 would be serene but moody with a stark white background. I tried these concepts in Photoshop to see if I liked any of those "directions" from my brain.

War Progression #1
20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

The straight-forward one; a brown background instead of green for better contrast. Ring on right hand unpainted, and a slash across his left leg, both showing the orange acrylic ground I use in almost all my oil paintings.

War Progression #2
work in progress

Like I said, giving my interpretations about what's going on in these paintings would be no more insightful than anyone else doing so. Guided by my subconscious, I can only guess at the double image symbolism here: is he literally beside himself, baffled by the horrors he's seen? Am I beside myself, afraid I'd be overwhelmed by the enormity of this project? (this mini series was done quite early on in the overall production (July-ish, I think)). Maybe both, maybe something else entirely.

War Progression #2
work in progress

Based on my brain's initial direction (and the initial Photoshop test) I thought this painting would end up mostly white, like he's in a snowstorm or is fading away from reality, but I still wanted to put in some details and sub-surface colours before the white-out occurred, with the thinking that this would give the final painting some depth and richness. Or not –it doesn't really matter if you can glean any of this in the final painting...at least I know it's there (and I have the photos to prove it!).

War Progression #2
work in progress

The cut. It had to be done. Most likely inspired by seeing a painting an artist (and former colleague) made where he slashed one of his paintings and then stitched it back together. There's certainly an injury/amputation/loss theme happening that my subconscious has a better understanding of than my awake-brain.

War Progression #2
work in progress

It had to be red thread and it had to be substantial. Krista suggested needlepoint thread which worked perfectly.

War Progression #2
20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

The final painting wasn't as white as I had imagined, but, as is, it's the way it has to be.

War Progression #3
20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

"Chaos" was the direction for this one. Absolute insanity. Even though it's very abstract and surreal, this could be in his head or a representation of external conditions. Whatever the hell the case is, I knew I had to look at some abstract art to get a sense of how I wanted this to end up.

I looked at a lot of different stuff, but my mind kept coming back to Jean-Michel Basquiat and his distinctive work. In the Photoshop test I ganged up a few of his paintings in various layers to get a feel for it and to see if it would work. Then I made up a composition in Basquiat's style but appropriate to my project. I was very satisfied with the result and this painting emboldened me to try other artists' styles (where appropriate) to diversify the story-telling in the overall project. It also helped me learn a lot about painting, trying to figure out how others did their work. Exciting!

War Progression #1 & #4
initial drawings (comparison)

I began the last painting with a very loose drawing of the soldier, thinking maybe the lines would be visible in the end, creating a kind of blurry effect, but then I kept adding things...

War Progression #4
work in progress

For richness and depth I used red and blue acrylic as the ground and, if I remember correctly, that's white gesso. I wasn't sure if the lines scratched into the gesso would be seen (even texturally), but they're there because they had to be. seriously: this mini series was like working on autopilot; if I believed in a muse I'd say I was guided by a muse. But it was my subconscious (through years of experience making paintings, and experiencing the world in its infinite variety) telling me to do things without explaining them. It's weird, but I'm satisfied with that understanding of it.

War Progression #4
work in progress

In comes the white oil paint after the blackness on the figure. I wanted something dark and textural, and for inspiration I was predominantly looking at the cover of Peter Gabriel's Passion album: 

"Study for Self Image II" by Julian Grater

I didn't mix as many media for my painting as Grater had for his (charcoal, bitumen, graphite, pastel, acrylic, beeswax, dry pigment, straw, and flower petals on paper), and mine's not quite as nuanced, but I knew it had to have a similar feel.

War Progression #4
20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

In the end I swirled the back end of my brush in the soldier's chest, revealing a tangle of red spirals, and scratched at the left leg, revealing red lines. Dripping water onto the leg made the paint run a bit, creating the trails.

17 December 2014


12" x 24", oil on wood panel, 2014

I deliberately borrowed/stole from the styles of other painters for a small handful of pieces in my WWI painting project, but I think I could have done just a wee bit more of it, if only to get myself painting differently and eventually incorporating what I've learned into my own "style," whatever that may be.

When it finally came time to depicting one of the more horrific weapons used in this war I felt it would be an unusual and maybe unsettling juxtaposition to paint it in bright, cheerful colours. I could have gone in any one of a hundred directions, but the fauvist colour palette of Henri Matisse came to mind almost immediately, so I had a good look and proceeded to borrow heavily from him. I'm happy with the results, especially with the blue cloud of smoke, but I would like to explore working in his style a bit more...

16 December 2014

Armistice Day, Toronto 1918

16" x 16", oil on masonite panel, 2014

I wanted to include at least one painting of actual joy in my 100-painting project inspired by World War One and, when I saw this picture of a young girl celebrating Armistice Day in Toronto, I couldn't resist. I colourized the flags to add some cheer to the picture but I kept the rest monochromatic for that patina of history.

This was the very last painting I did for To the Sound of Trumpets (in the Remembrance section) and it was finished (and still wet) about four hours before I hung the entire show on November 10 (the show opened the next day).

15 December 2014

"Send More Men"

"Send More Men"
16" x 12", oil on wood panel, 2014

During the exhibition of my WWI painting project at Macaulay Church, these two were hung in the middle of the same panel as the Wounded mini series, the subversion of a propaganda poster in the painting above serving as a macabre punchline of sorts.

When I was doing The Devil's Harvest section (as a 24-hour painting marathon of PEC soldier portraits), I found myself painting way ahead of schedule (I'd planned to complete one portrait per hour, on average), so to keep occupied and still have something to show viewers (the event was streamed live online) I started and completed the painting above.

16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014

“…Each man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
John Donne

13 December 2014

More Wounded

Wounded 3
16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014, private collection

Wounded 4
16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014

Wounded 2
16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014

I felt painting one wounded soldier being carried on a stretcher (Wounded 1) wasn't enough, and I had a lot of room (100 paintings) for some pointed repetition, like verses in a song.

During the exhibition I included many quotes dispersed among the paintings. Below is one of the quotes on the panel on which these were hung:

“For the first time the British army lost its spirit of optimism, and there was a sense of deadly depression among many officers and men with whom I came in touch. They saw no ending of the war, and nothing except the continuous slaughter such as that in Flanders.”
British war correspondent

12 December 2014

At What Cost Peace?

20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

Many of the paintings from To the Sound of Trumpets, my WWI-inspired art project, work better when viewed with the rest of the pieces than when taken out of context. By itself, this (and others) may seem a little heavy-handed, but I think it's a key piece in the Remembrance section.

The main inspiration for this painting came from a scene in Alejandro Jodorowsky's extremely surreal Holy Mountain where little, blue birds flew out of a small hole in the chest of a man who was recently killed. After seeing image after image of peace doves and hands holding doves, I subverted a painting by Nancy Howe and added the visceral connection to the soldier to indicate that peace may be the goal, an ideal, but it comes at a price.

The working title for this was Peace Extraction, but I opted for the longer, Star-Trek-third-season-era-like title because it's a little more narrative, but I still like Peace Extraction.

10 December 2014

Seizing the Day (x2)

Nunc est bibendum
14" x 11", oil on wood panel, 2014

The titles of these two translate from the Latin as, respectively, "now is the time to drink" and "now is the time to dance footloose upon the earth," both phrases intended to convey the same sentiment as carpe diem, or "seize the day."

With these paintings I wanted to show moments (like with R&R) when the soldiers took some time away from the harsh reality of war and made the most of those rare opportunities.

Nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus
20" x 16", oil on wood panel, 2014

The top painting is based on a moment in a documentary I found quite moving, one soldier helping a wounded one have a bit of a drink, combined with an image of barbed wire from elsewhere. The bottom painting is based on a photo I found in the Belleville Armoury and I was so taken by the sheer joy of the men in it that I had to include it in my WWI painting project. I don't know if they knew exactly what they were getting into, but these men from the Prince Edward – Hastings Regiment (the Hasty Pees) were certainly having a fun time in the snow before going overseas.

06 December 2014

R & R

16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014

I wanted to have a truthful but diverse representation of what the soldiers experienced during World War One. Even with 100 paintings I knew I couldn't be truly comprehensive, but I did manage to show some non-horrific, non-combative aspects in a few.

One thing that struck me during my research was the very strong bond many soldiers made with each other, despite differences in class, education, wealth, etc., and that these bonds were often maintained after the war among the survivors, these comrades being the only people who could understand the experience.

So I wanted to illustrate a moment or two of levity, or at least a break in the terrible fighting where they were able to take their minds off of it for a while.

05 December 2014

This Silent Countryside

16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014, private collection

Taken out of context, apart from the main body of work that makes up To the Sound of Trumpets, my World War One-inspired painting project, this is simply a nice winter landscape –a silent countryside, as the title would have it. And that's all you'd get unless you saw the exhibition in the church museum at Macaulay Heritage Park from November 11–30 this year (or read this here blog post) and read the accompanying quote from an onlooker in Europe in winter 1917:

"There was something suggestive of tragic drama in this silent countryside where millions of men were waiting to kill each other."

My intent was that if you now look at the painting again you'll see it differently, maybe with a sense of foreboding, doom, or even tragic drama.

04 December 2014

Memento Mori x9

Memento Mori #1 through #9
8" x 8" oil on canvas, 2014

During my research for my World War One painting project, I kept coming across many quotes from soldiers, sentiments in books, poems, songs, etc., saying in one way or another that nobody ever wins a war (it's even the title of the collection of diaries by Prince Edward County's own Ella Mae Bongard). Growing up in the 80s with the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (via the USA & the USSR, the two nuclear superpowers) hanging over our heads, this notion has been on my mind for most of my life, so I knew I had to address this in my project somehow.

I also wanted to include a memento mori to reinforce the real reason for Remembrance Day. Combining these two concepts via a tic-tac-toe board ending in stalemate seemed like a handy solution (and a handy way to do 9 paintings rather quickly). I ended up doing a few more paintings that are literal memento mori and some that can be interpreted as such. Of course, the entire project itself serves as one big memento mori.

Memento Mori #1 through #9
initial drawings

03 December 2014

Dance Partners 6 through 9

Dance Partners 06
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

Dance Partners 07
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

Dance Partners 08
work in progress

Dance Partners 08
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

Dance Partners 09
work in progress

Dance Partners 09
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014, private collection

These are the last remaining paintings in the Dance Partners section of my World War One-inspired painting project, To the Sound of Trumpets.
See also Dance Partners #1 for more contextual info, then have a look at Dance Partners 2 through 5 to see the rest.

02 December 2014

Dance Partners 2 through 5

Dance Partners 02
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014, private collection

Dance Partners 03
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

Dance Partners 04
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

Dance Partners 05
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

I had initially planned to do ten paintings of shoes (to represent the beginning of World War One) to make it a nice round number, but deleted one (and re-used the canvas to paint "Why Are We Here?") because I then thought hanging nine in a square would look nice (coincidentally, the one I chose to delete is the one in the middle covered up by #7). Then I realized the display panels I'd borrowed wouldn't fit a square of nine 20" x 20" paintings, so I ended up displaying them horizontally:

Dance Partners during the exhibition.

 Below are the initial ten paintings prepped and ready to go. You can see Number 1 here, and 6 through 9 here.