Franklin’s Tree

Last week I alluded to a discussion some of us had about the plant Franklinia alatamaha, and the importance it has to the Bartrams and Marshalls. It was first found by John Bartram on a trip to Georgia on the banks of the Alatamaha River (hence the species name), however because of the season he was unable to bring back any seeds or plantings, and it took William Bartram using his father’s directions to collect seeds in the wild that were able to propagate successfully in their garden. William also named the plant after Benjamin Franklin, when William’s studies of the plant suggested it was a new genus. Humphry Marshall was the first to publish information about the plant in his groundbreaking book Arbustrum Americanum.

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The Franklinia growing in Jamie Paxon’s garden.

 

 

The particularly interesting thing about the Franklinia is that it is extinct in the wild, and has been so for a long time. In fact, William Bartram was apparently the one person to have successfully grown the plant, so any modern day specimens are descended from his collection trip. Though it looks rather like a Camellia or a Gordonia (it was thought to be a Gordonia for quite some time) it is the single member of the Franklinia genus, making it unique. Why Franklinia became extinct in the wild by the early 19th century is unclear but we can make some good guesses. It is likely this beautiful, small tree was already on the cusp of extinction considering it was only known to grow along the Alatamaha and is famously delicate. Compounding that factor is the possibility of pressures on the environment due to settlers and over collecting by interested gardeners.

 

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The Franklinia in Botanists in Bartram’s Garden.

The Fan Brush

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There is an interesting story behind this brush, usually called a fan brush for obvious reasons. Back when I was in Art School we learned that the fan brush was bad, basically a crutch for poor artists. Students who were unhappy with their work would go back over it with a fan brush, like how you would apply a filter in Photoshop today. This would smooth the painting out, and give it an “impressionistic” feel instead of a “badly painted” feel (or at least, so they hoped). As such our teachers found it highly irritating, and told us to never use them. With the experience I have now, I can see this attitude is a little questionable, and I understand what the fan brush is actually good for.

 

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Brush strokes are very visible in oil paintings, and the fan brush can be used to smooth paint out into a flat color. Normally you would want to use your brush strokes to add more depth to your painting, but sometimes having a flat colored surface is very useful. Particularly with the new technique I’m using, where I’ll be painting onto a dry background. If the background has texture I won’t be able to blend that texture into the objects on the background. It’ll work against me, so it’s best to have a flat background, created by the fan brush. As a tool it is best used for removing the evidence of your brush strokes, not obfuscating your amateurish mistakes! The fan brush probably has even more profitable uses that I haven’t discovered, early prejudices can be hard to shake.

 

Posing and Botany

Since this blog started while the show was well underway, there are several paintings we haven’t had the chance to talk about because they were already complete. So on occasion we will revisit these works and talk about some of the highlights of their creation.

 

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Sebastian here, posing for this painting Botanists in Bartram’s Garden was very fun, in part because the posing mirrored the situation depicted in the painting. The painting includes four of the greatest botanists in the colonies at that time, Moses Marshall (portrayed by Micheal Alderfer), Humphry Marshall (David Culp), William Bartram (Me, Sebastian Martinez), and finally John Bartram (Jaime Paxson). They are gathered around a Franklinia alatamaha, a rare plant discovered by John Bartram and cultivated by his son William Bartram. In the painting, the two Bartrams are explaining the features of the plant to the curious Marshalls. In the present day the same thing was happening, we were all gathered around the Franklinia in Jaime’s garden, discussing it. Jaime explained how he got the famously finicky plant to grow in his garden (after several failures), David and Micheal talked about its form and features, and I chimed in with what I knew about its history. We had a great time and everyone learned something, and I think some of the spirit of our meeting and the historical meeting made its way into the final painting.

Calendar

Organization and planning are extremely important! Here we have Dad using his self-made rollout calendar, and a new three hole puncher for organizing loose sheets of paper. When he said he wanted to make a calendar for the show, I figured he would just get something from Staples and write in it: instead he made this impressive scroll from printer paper and tape. It makes planning for the future a much more visual experience than it would be otherwise, which is useful for all of us. Keeping the physical and digital elements of the show together and organized is a major if little talked about challenge for any kind of long term project. Its not just that you could lose some important document; even worse you could forget the important document even exists! It’s not something you’d normally think about, but is a real issue for something like our show that has been years in the making.

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Crazy Techniques

 

With this new painting I’m trying an old technique common in the 18th century that is (at least for me) totally crazy; working on a dry background. Painting a blue cloudless sky, letting it dry completely and only then adding painted trees, clouds etc. on this blue surface.  Taking advantage of one of the great strengths of the oil paint technique usually requires painting wet into wet. Personally it’s a joy for me to push around gobs of paint using a large brush and spontaneously creating wispy clouds, dark approaching storms and glowing sunsets. I have a lot of experience working like this, and it is how I made the powerful sky in the Downing’s Town painting.

 

I’ve actually never done this wet on dry before, so I am a little nervous about how it will turn out, but also excited for the new possibilities!  The basic idea is that by painting wet onto dry you can have more definite lines, greater detail, (the elaborate rope rigging on an old sailing ship for example) and sharper edges in general because the paints aren’t blending. This technique is great for detail work but pretty much destroys the possibilities for atmospheric effects. The necessity of choosing between atmosphere and detail is one of the fundamental insights of Impressionism, who chose atmosphere very deliberately.  So why am I using a detail-oriented approach when I aim to paint something as amorphous and atmospheric as clouds? The main reason is artistic curiosity! I want to explore using a non-intuitive method and seeing if it creates something interesting. Ultimately, I don’t know if my sky in this painting will seem all that different from my other works, but I’m looking forward to finding out!

 

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Getting Philosophical

What could be depicted here?

 

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I imagine one of the common responses will be “a female figure”. If we pull back from this detail you can see that in the context of the image they are the roots of a tree. The multiple readings possible with a few scribbles are something an artist often does unintentionally and automatically. If I happen to notice these “side effects” they are usually scrubbed out. Now, due to my reading in the philosophy of Robert Hopkins I’m leaving them in- dealing with them.  I won’t try to summarize Hopkins’ philosophy, but I will summarize one of the main inspirations I took from his writings.

 

As a realistic artist that wants to communicate to my audience I have enormous control over my work that I can use to make meaning. In creating this image I have control over what they are in reality (roots) what they resemble in outline shape (feminine figures) and how I portray them in paint (not started). Though I have always had this control reading Hopkins has encouraged me to use it more consciously, and explore it directly. How I ultimately end up painting the roots will make a significant impact on how people will see them, and what place they will have in the painting. The situation gets more complex when you consider that roots in nature can often end up looking like figures “naturally”. We are left with a question: is seeing a figure in the roots a matter of artist intent, human nature, perception, or psychology?

All of the above?

 

At Work on President’s Day

Leah here – spent a snowy President’s Day talking about the Humphry Marshall show, lunching at the Green Street Grill and documenting Adrian and Sebastian at work.  Many thanks to all of the Presidents for this wonderful day at home.  And a special thank you to Titian (aka Tish) and Henri Matisse (aka Henri) for allowing themselves to be photographed.  Mary Cassatt (aka Cassie) is hiding under the table.

 

New Painting

It’s always exciting starting up on a new painting, though this is not the painting I was expecting to start. My plan was to do the intimate portrait of Humphry Marshall in his study, but storms and various other problems got in the way of access to David Culp. An internationally known plantsman and good friend, David has been the consistent and highly appropriate model for Humphry Marshall. With no time for setbacks I took this opportunity to do a completely different painting. Though it still includes Humphry, his back will be to the viewer, meaning I won’t need David to model.

 

Drawing

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s still in the early drawing phase, but I’ve already done some major rethinking about the composition. As you can see below the figure of Humphry takes up the left side of the canvas, and would give the image a ‘bracketed’ aesthetic, rather like my recently finished “Downing’s Town”. However, I’ve decided to shrink him by more than half; which will give the work an entirely different feel. By rethinking the relationship of the figure to the expansive scene before him more attention will be drawn out into the landscape, helped along by a centrally located river now barely defined. Unlike in the previous painting “Downing’s Town” that has an audaciously placed fence post in the exact center of the image, this river will go the opposite direction and sweep away from the viewer and disappear into the distance. Naturally, I don’t expect anyone to grasp this yet; after all, in this blog I’m only posting a few scribbles.  In the weeks ahead you will see the transformation of these few marks on a surface into a colorful and atmospheric depiction of 18th century Pennsylvania as a breathtaking wilderness!

 

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Video Documentation

We’re trying something a little different today – a short video of Adrian at work! Though we are working out the kinks now, videos are something we’d like to do more in the future. It is exciting to share the normally solitary endeavor of painting!

Meeting about the Work

Phil and Francine Dague, Downingtown power couple, took some time out of their busy schedule to come see us and the completed Downing’s Town painting. It was quite a pleasure to talk to them and get their feedback about the work they were so involved in making, and also discuss some potential future plans! Here you can see Sebastian and I with the Dagues taking a photo to commemorate the event.

 

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Here you can see them modeling for me as Joseph Plum Martin and Mrs. Downing (along with Michael Alderfer and David Culp). Phil is quite involved in the historical reenactment community, and while Phil’s main interest is in Civil War reenactiments, a friend of his named Charlie Lang quite generously lent us his outfit. The uniform is one of the 2nd Pennsylvania Battalion of the First Continental Army, which Martin would not have normally worn. Perhaps a friend lent him a uniform as well?