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MAKING A SCENE

Some paintings call for a different approach. Occasionally I want to paint something for which a source photo isn't going to give me the look and feel that I'm going for, so I employ sculpting, scene building and what I lovingly refer to as "honest forgery" to create something that will result in a more beautiful and effective painting in the end.

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There's something special about creating an object in order to paint it. It's not something that I can do in every case, but the work that goes into fabricating backgrounds, sculpting artifacts, stitching, beading, painting or staining something with age gives me the opportunity to engage with a subject long before I paint it, and in the end I believe it makes for a more dramatic mood and tone to the artwork. It's a special kind of knowing. For me it has roots in the fearful trip to my great grandfather's workshop, with the ram skull over the creaky wooden screen door, or all the found objects that my grandmother would keep in a back room that I found as fascinating as could be.

I've always been fascinated by dioramas. A visit to any Natural History Museum would have me transfixed at the lifelike suspension of forms and the end result of a process that froze the beauty in the world. All of the disciplines that came into the creation of a diorama from hunting, to sketching, scene painting, sculpting, taxidermy and more culminated in a grand work of art. Often the people who created these dioramas most or even all of these skills and would be on the scenes that inspired these works of art.

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For the painting "The Miracle of Rain" I wanted to create a "Parable Painting," that included elements from what is commonly called the Parable of the Sower, from three of the Gospels in the Bible. I envisioned the side of a very old barn, a sack of wheat seed leaning against the weathered door. I don't paint as well from source photos and prefer to paint objects that are right in front of me. How to relocate the side of a barn circa 1880 to my garage studio? There was only one way to do it, to build a scene at half-scale in my own home, this way I could light and arrange it as needed. Besides, this was going to take several months to undertake. Why you ask? Good question. This for me seemed more like an assignment than an idea, so I got to work. 

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Construction began on the barn wall. I used poplar wood from local hardware stores, bleaching the slats to get rid of the green color in the poplar. I then used various methods to age and wear down the wood to look as old as possible. I'd tell you but it's a closely guarded secret that you can Google for very little effort. 

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To lend an air of authenticity to the barn, the slats were coffee dyed, chalked, spattered with mud, rubbed down and stained all to create variation and age. After the hardware was installed on the door, I designed an old billboard to adorn the wall and aged it using various tricks to simulate weather and damage. Coffee, soy sauce, sandpaper, spit and dirt were all brought in for their effect.

I scoured clay from the dried mud tracks of local dirt roads and "reconstituted" the it (or in laymans terms I just got it wet again). Then the fun part, slinging a fresh bed of mud in the 4' wide basin I'd made and heating it until it became the cracked earth. After that a combination of flour, spices, hand picked stones, old rusty square-headed nails and hand planted weeds lent to the reality of the scene. 

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I made a half-scale seed bag out of a linen coffee sack and filled it with a wheat seed I selected and ordered online, a strain that was roughly half the size of typical seed so it fit the scale. Crow feathers were trimmed down to size. Stones for the "rocky soil" were added, as well as the thorns to choke out the flourishing wheat. The scene was then lit and judged from many angles. It came together in less than a month, and then the hard part began... painting it.

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Mark Twain once said "If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you can't learn in any other way." For me, this way of working is definitely taking the cat by the tail. 

I'm happy with the piece that resulted and all in the pursuit of good soil, a softer heart. I hope you enjoy it and pursue the same.

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