Wednesday, October 19, 2011

24 square feet of art

Some time after I finished this project, my editor at Tin House Books commissioned from me a 4 foot by 6 foot painting on canvas replicating my illustration for page 538 of Moby-Dick, which illustrates the line "Great God! but for one single instant show thyself," cried Starbuck; "never, never wilt thou capture him, old man - In Jesus' name no more of this, that's worse than devil's madness. Two days chased; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone - all good angels mobbing thee with warnings; - what more wouldst thou have? - Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world? Oh, oh, - Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!" Here is my original drawing...


I was simultaneously intimidated and inspired by the challenge. I had never really painted anything but apartment walls before I started this illustration project, and although I feel like I developed some skill with a brush while working on these Moby-Dick pieces, I was not at all sure I was ready for the challenge of a canvas. Especially a canvas this enormous. Still, I just couldn't find any reason to say "no" other than fear, and I'm not going to ever make any decisions based on that. So I agreed. And got started.

It took forever. It was far far harder than I could have possibly imagined. It was, at times, absolute warfare. It was physically and mentally draining, and by the time I was done, I wanted it out of my room and out of my house, never to be seen again. But it turned out magnificently, and I am grateful for the challenge. Here are some photos documenting the months-long process of creating this monster.

First, the canvas arrives, with my wife next to it to show the scale...


Next, unwrapped and up on folding chairs. It was far too large to fit inside my closet studio, and I don't have an easel of any kind, so I was forced to get creative. Ultimately, this arrangement worked very well...


Immediately, I realized I was going to need to gesso this thing more than I had expected. Down to the garage for a few coats of spray gesso first...


There was spray gesso hanging in the air EVERYWHERE. After two coats of that, I gave the canvas two coats of brush gesso..


Finally ready to begin. In order to maintain proportions as best as I could, I printed out the drawing and drew a grid over it. Then I gridded out the canvas with thin black thread to give myself an idea of where things should fall. Since Moby Dick is the central idea of this piece, I started by painting in the White Whale in order to build everything else around it...


More painting of the Whale...


A close-up, so you can see some of the texture and the black threads...


Almost done. I was very pleased with how the Whale was a very different shade and texture of white. It held up very well against the gessoed canvas...


A shot of the end of the second stage of the piece...


Next, it was time to begin the letters. I was looking forward to this part quite a bit...


It proved to be much more tiring and exacting than I had expected. Me, taking a break, rather exhausted...


The first coat of red is finally finished. In the original piece, since I used red ink for the letters, there are subtle gradations in each letter. I wanted to reproduce that with the paint as well as I could, so I watered the paint down a bit and gave each letter 2 or 3 coats so that there would be some depth and variety to the text behind the Whale. It's hard to see in this photo, but you can get some idea...


Finally finished with the letters! And this is how I felt...


Then I realized I still had a lot of work left on Moby Dick himself and this is how I felt...


Moby Dick is rather finely detailed with a network of creases and wrinkles. It was delicate work, even at this scale, so I went over and over that vast white shape, dropping in lines here and there. Again, this took an eternity...


More linework...


And finally, after I have no idea how many hours and weeks of work, the piece is finished. And I am completely drained...


In the end, I was deliriously happy with how well it had turned out. It really is a powerful, mighty painting. And I'm grateful to my editor for posing this challenge to me. At first, immediately after I finished, I thought I would never ever work at this scale again. It was simply too unwieldy. After contemplating the finished piece for a few days though, I want to start in again. I'd like to tackle something this large and see it hanging on my own wall. We'll see.

6 comments:

  1. Love this post and seeing your process!

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  2. Thank you, both. I have been considering doing some additional posts about my process, especially in terms of creating a drawing, but I worry I might get bogged down in taking photos and derail the whole thing before I finish a drawing. Still, I'd like to so I'll see what I can put together.

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  3. Holy cow! That's is one darn inspiring bit of artwork! And by bit, I mean HUGE, DEMANDING, CHALLENGING, and AWESOME! Kudos to you for the attack and completion of that dare - definitely a big payoff!

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  4. Thank you Miss Gobbler. It really was impressive to see in person. The more time that goes by, the more distance I have from the whole thing, the more interested I am in doing something of a similar size for myself. We'll see.

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  5. Brilliant! Thanks for sharing process.

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