In the studio

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Isn’t that A Tale of Two Cities?” says my dad over the phone. “Yeah, that’s the first line.” “Well, it sure is these days.” “You got that right.”

In these frightening times, I feel very lucky to be taking one day a week to paint at a private studio in Vermont which my mother-in-law and her partner are renting. I’ve been going there all summer, making this the first time since the kiddo was born that I’m able to paint regularly. When I go, I don’t even listen to music, I just enjoy the near-total silence of the space.

Now that I’m painting regularly, I like to have five or six canvases going at any given time, so that when I finish a layer on one painting I can set it aside and work on something else.

[work in progress]

This sustained effort is allowing me to develop some of the techniques I’ve been thinking about over the years, particularly the use of translucent glazes over textured surfaces. I’m interested in the way the paint pools in the little recesses and rests on the peaks, depending on how it’s applied, and how these effects can be used to give illusions of light and depth.

My ideal canvas already has two or three finished paintings lying on top of one another to give this really built-up, textured look, before I prime it one last time and start blocking in the final image. I love to follow the chaos that develops this way, trying to find a compromise between the indeterminacy of the texture and the intentionality of representation.

[work in progress]

Not all of my paintings have a chunky texture underneath; the commissioned portrait shown above has a subtler texture from a splotchy application of gesso. This smaller, more consistent tooth allows me to explore texture effects while still pursuing a flattering likeness.

This octopus shows the effects of transparent glazing on a very high-relief, sculptural surface which started out random and then narrowed in on some intentional features, especially the brow and the beak. A metallic turquoise glaze gives the water a shimmery, gaudy effect. My favorite aspect of this piece is the transition from pale to black, with this heavy-metal lightning look created by dry-brushing gesso over black paint and then glazing blue on top of that.

[work in progress]

I’m doing this landscape from my imagination, which explains why it still looks a bit cartoonish. This piece is full of experiments in the use of the pallet knife and fan brush for texture. Hopefully when it is finished it will have a good feeling of depth.

This is an example of a portrait created using indirect painting techniques I’ve learned from studying the Old Masters and from working with artist friends. The final surface has five to eight layers of paint at varying levels of transparency. It’s nice to be able to alternate between working on pieces with this high level of precision and other pieces that are more loose and gestural, depending on my mood. Sometime, highly focused painting like this is actually quite relaxing, but sometimes I don’t have the patience for it.

I’ve been working on this portrait of Breonna Taylor. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it when it’s done. My motivation for doing this is to capture some of the joy and beauty of this person who has become famous for her violent death, but who deserves to be remembered as a living, breathing human being with friends, family, feelings, dreams–all these things that get erased by racial violence and the discourse that surrounds it. Painting someone’s portrait is a way of spending time in the contemplation of their humanity, and more than once while painting this I have been moved to tears. Black lives matter! Justice for Breonna!

I walk around my neighborhood singing “What a Wonderful World” while pushing the stroller, hoping the kiddo will fall asleep. It’s all here, green trees, blue sky, friendly neighbors, right down to the baby. In such moments, it is possible to believe the words. It was certainly no easier to do so back in 1967 when Louie sang it; on the recording it sure sounds like he believes. What is this spirit that finds wonder in what is good even in times of turmoil?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of my friends, in which case you ought to know that I miss the bejeezus outta you. Thanks for looking at my paintings; you can see more in my portfolio.

Published by Jeff Diteman

I am a literary translator and scholar working with French, Spanish, and English.

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