If you are frequent reader of this blog, you know that I love art, and have a soft spot for artists. My brother is an artists and I have friends and family members who are artists. I secretly wish I could sit in front of a canvas and easel and paint a landscape. It seems like a very pleasant way to relax. But I don’t possess one once of technical creative skill. But you would never know it by looking at a recent wee painting I completed under the tutelage of up-and-coming Boston-based artist, Patrick Shea.
Patrick is a graduate of the fine art program at Cornell, and while his studio is in the Back Bay, he spends a lot of time traveling, capturing dynamic photographs that sometimes find their way on to his canvases. Patrick focuses on photography, painting and etching using copper molds. During my afternoon exploring his studio, and hearing about his work, I was stuck by how technical his approach is to his paintings, which can best be described as industrial.
We focused our discussion on painting, seeing that is what Patrick helped me accomplish. Patrick’s process begins with very detailed sketches, not exclusively of what he wants to paint, but also of the dimensions of the canvas and the scale of what will be on that canvas. Patrick makes his own canvases, because these days most wood comes from China, and is prone to warping especially in New England where the temperature varies so much from season to season. He uses a certain type of wood and reinforces the back so that its shape will never be compromised. Each canvas is constructed to accommodate a specific piece of art he is planning to paint on it. Frequently Patrick’s painting are based on a photograph he has taken on his travels. He uses that as a guide before studies because, “a photograph never lies,” he told me.
In complete opposition to the way I image people painting (“happy little tree” style), Patrick’s work is very studied, with sketches and meticulous planning. It reminds me of one of my favorite artists (and one of Patrick’s as well, no wonder), Edward Hopper. Hopper created dozens of “studies,” or sketches, of different parts of a painting (a couple sitting at a lunch counter, the glow of the street light outside the diner) before he painted the finished piece. I saw an exhibit of Hopper’s studies years ago at the Whitney, and it made quite an impression. Like Hopper, Patrick’s work is detailed, in its preparation and execution. Why does he go to these lengths? “I have to get it right,” he explained to me. Sound familiar? I may have found the most Type A artists out there. How appropriate for me and this blog.
Corita Kent’s “Rainbow Swash” is a Boston institution. What you’ve never heard of it? What if I call it “The gas tank?” Ahhh, now you know what I’m talking about. This is what I set out to paint. Patrick’s preparations for this lesson illustrates his attention to detail even before his brush touches the canvas. Patrick studied the gas tank, figured out what angle he wanted and the ideal weather conditions to have as a background. He waited for that perfect weather day and then he may or may not have waded into Boston Harbor to take this image below.
I used his photograph as the basis for my painting. Patrick encouraged me to use tape to make sure the lines that would create the sides of my gas tank were completely straight, very much his style, which includes measuring and tracing on the canvas before ever picking up a brush. Once I got my soupy grey background done, and the solid white of the gas tank, it was time to get to the color. That’s when my lack of artistic skill gave way to the strategizer inside me. My painting was not going to turn out well at all if I relied solely on my non-existent skill. So when Patrick offered some heavy gel to thicken the paint, I had a light bulb moment. If I glopped the paint on my canvas, it may look like the large strokes of Corita Kent’s gas tank, without me trying to duplicate the exact strokes.
As I spread the thickened pain on my tiny canvas with a palette knife I realized my plan was working, and I think Patrick thought so as well. While this was certainly not as exacting as his style, he seemed to appreciate my approach, which meant a great deal to me. Best of all for me, I was having fun and not getting too caught up with getting it right. And my water tank turned out very nicely, not to be immodest. I was really proud of myself.
The best part of the whole experience was getting a window into the mind and detailed work of a very talented artist who taught me that maybe being a little Type A isn’t so bad after all.
I’d like to thank Patrick Shea for taking the time to show me his work and talk art with me. New England art lovers, track this guy down! I was not compensated in any way for this post.