As longtime readers have figured out through previous sketches and projects, I have a particular affection for gourds. I've talked about this at length in earlier posts, but essentially it comes down to a combination of formal qualities and personal symbolism. In other words, I like gourds because of their peculiar shapes, and because they represent for me the most pleasant aspects of domesticity, the warmth and invitation of the home. It might be because someone had given me a tiny pumpkin as a kid and I've subsequently projected all the positive feelings I got from that thing onto subsequent gourds. Or maybe it's because I associate the ripening of gourds with autumn, a season I've always especially liked with its changing foliage and cooling temperatures that merit warm, inviting sweaters. Who knows.

Last year I made a linocut featuring a plethora of gourds. I'd actually thought about doing a painting at the same time to compare my experiences with the two techniques, but I didn't get around to the second project.

This year, however, I finally decided to do the painted version after my parents mailed me some unusual-looking gourds. I thought the lumpy one in particular would be an interesting challenge, especially when paired with the smaller, more elegant gourd. After doing some individual sketches, I put the two together to create the basic composition. Since the gourds did not last long enough for me to complete the actual painting, the sketches I made became critical guides.

Whereas in last year's print I left the background white, this year I decided to channel a specific historical tradition: seventeenth-century Spanish still-life painting, particularly that of Juan Sanchez Cotan, and to a lesser degree, Francisco de Zurbaran. Cotan set his meticulously-rendered fruits and vegetables in gray niches against black backgrounds, enabling him to show off his skills in depicting three-dimensional reality through paint. Set against the black canvas, the produce almost leaps out at the viewer. There's a sense of quiet and elegance to these paintings that's almost unsettling, with the minimal background encouraging the viewer to focus on the transient beauty of the produce. 

Juan Sánchez Cotán, Quince, Cabbage, and Cucumber, 1602, oil on canvas, 68.9 cm x 84.5 cm, San Diego Museum of Art.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Spanish, 1598-1664, Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose, 1633, oil on canvas, 24-1/2 x 43-1/8 in. (62.2 x 109.5 cm), the Norton Simon Museum.

I decided I'd pay homage to this tradition though my own painting, albeit on a much more modest scale. I started by working on the underpainting, which would enhance the three-dimensional effect I wanted to achieve. I began by outlining all my contours with burnt sienna.

The following night, I began to work on the model by mixing in some ochre.

On the third night, I began filling in the background. I painted in a basic shelf that would mimic the look of Cotan's paintings, and after some hesitance (after all it's not like I'd be able to paint it over easily, so I knew there'd be no going back), painted in the remaining background black. I didn't use any matte medium to thin it out, I just went all-out and used opaque, unmixed black.

I continued filling in the modeling, adding black into my ochre and sienna. Some artists refuse to use black altogether, preferring the tones you can achieve through the rest of the color palette. Personally I alternate. Sometimes I forego black, other times I use it. It all depends on the work itself and its particular needs. Since black was already so dominant in the background, I figured that this painting called for it in order to make the overall composition feel unified.

It was then time to start adding color. As with the underpainting, I worked in layers of translucent glazes, slowly building up the tones while allowing the lower layers to continue shine through. All together, they make for a strongly three-dimensional look.

As I continued building up my color, I started adding white and black to my shelf to emulate the stone-like appearance in the niches used by Cotan. Mine turned out brighter than his, but I think it works.

As I continued building up the shelf, I started thinking of another, very different painting within the Roswell Museum collection: Black/White: Horizontal I by Joan Watts

Joan Watts, Black/White: Horizontal I, 1994, oil on canvas, 48" x 72", collection of RMAC.
Painted more than three centuries after Cotan's painting, this work comes from a completely different tradition, one involving abstraction rather than adamant naturalism. Yet the work is still very much based in the world we see and experience every day. When you look at the painting, it hovers between pure abstraction and streamlined landscape, balanced on the cusp of representation and form for its own sake. Ultimately, all art straddles this distinction, for even if its nonobjective, it's still a representation of our thoughts and ideas.

By the end of the process, I was focusing on straightening up outlines and so forth to clean up the overall work. I also added black to the final layers of shadows to help the colors blend in with the rest of the composition.

Finally, we have the finished work:

Initially this painting started out as an exploration of historical painting, particularly that of seventeenth-century Spain, but other ideas began to creep in as I progressed. I've talked before about why I make art, and over the last several weeks, particularly following the election, that need to resist and transform negative energy has been very critical to my well-being. Regardless of your political affiliations, there's a lot of uncertainty circulating in the cultural ether right now. I don't know what will happen over the next several months and years, perhaps nothing, perhaps everything, but that feeling of having no control, of falling into the black void, has been very strong.

For me then, this painting represents my resistance to that void. The background is solid black, nothing mixed in to temper it, but the gourds themselves have been painted with numerous layers of transparent glazes, and it is only when they all are seen together that the subtle, three-dimensional whole comes through. Though it'd be far easier to deal with, life isn't black-and-white, it's a range of gradations, and while we may not always agree with each other, society needs all of us to create the wonderfully complex cultures and societies that we have. We are, in effect, that lumpy gourd, full of different groups and opinions that results in a very complicated but also fascinating thing we call human civilization. And it is only when we are all together, all accounted for and working together, that we can stave off that black void of entropy.

So here's to a year of healing and renewal in 2017, as well as more prints, paintings, and ceramics.


  1. Visiting Spain would be wonderful to see how Francisco de Zurbaran fares against Sorolla, or how Picasso fares against Miro. -DAC


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