On Reworking Paintings

By Thom Wright Sep 2020

Have you ever gone too far with a painting, to the point where there are no easy fixes? This is especially the case in plein-aire paintings, when there is no going back to the original landscape and its weather to see how to let nature show the way.  And for me, for many years of learning to make watercolors, at my selected location and early in the morning, I would do my best effort to draw the initial design, paint the big areas lightly and boldly, and then work in the middle value shapes.  After returning home and letting the watercolor dry, all the values become 20% lighter, the richness of color and contrast reduced. Too many times, later I would paint in a richer color, and the unity of the work would collapse. 

After learning that the later phase of painting should proceed after time and thought went in to my analysis.  Of course, even then some paintings would not give me solutions, so I would set them aside for later, and for much later. After years of being out-of-sight, out-of-mind, and after years more of more art classes, I reconsidered them and looked again for solutions.   

“Bolsa Chica Headlands #4”, Stage 3, 18” x 24”, Watercolor on paper, Thom Wright  2002

In my watercolor shown above, I had already reworked it two more times after its initial plein-aire beginning.  I had colored and darkened the upper sky with hatch strokes.  Also, the foliage of the two foreground trees were enriched and darkened to add color and darken the undersides.  At that time I was taking a watercolor painting class at Cal State U Long Beach, and learning to go beyond the conditions of the scene.  When I began it on site, the morning light at the coast dominated and washed out the colors and the darks.  Still, I set this aside again and decided to go farther with it.

“Bolsa Chica Headlands #4”, 18” x 24”, Watercolor on paper, Thom Wright 2002

The second image shown above is the same painting again after one more stage of adding more color and darks.  By comparing the first image with the second, one can see the foreground additions are pushing the middle ground and sky back.  There are red-oranges, burnt sienna, and mid and dark value blue-greys added there.  Remember that a 2D landscape generally requires atmospheric distance achieved with a relationship of stronger and darker at the bottom (foreground) and lighter and thinner color receding in the middle ground, and lightest values and palest color in the distance. Also notice that the color bands at the ground and in the tree foliage add vertical and horizontal movements, so that the whole composition integrates together.

“Bolsa Chica Mesa #1”, 16” x 20”, Oil on canvas, Thom Wright 2005

Three years later I returned to the same location and did a smaller painting of the two big trees on the mesa, overlooking the Bolsa Chica Wetlands and the Pacific Ocean seen here in the distance.  I was sitting farther away from the two trees and towards the bluff on the left side.  Besides using oil paint versus the watercolor before, this scene had changed a little.  The two trees are bigger and with more open foliage, and the season changed the morning sky with more haze and less brightness, and with a bluer high sky.  On site I was working for about two hours, and initially using more color and value range overall. I differentiated the two trees as female and male, one more colorful on the left and one darker in foliage, the tree trunk and major branches.  Notice too that with oil paints, I can work back into dark patches with lighter and more colorful mixes.  Overall, the brushwork is more broken and made with distinctive brush marks that also describe the orientation of the pieces. 

My finishing of this painting required much less effort, because of the more directed beginning.  But it is always necessary to review one’s paintings a day or two later.  Some areas always itch and need a little more scratching. With time and experience one learns to make changes only as needed and always with the whole painting in mind.

On Paintings that Breathe

By Thom Wright Sep 2020

In pursuit of the aesthetic that less is more, I have pursued some rather atmospheric abstract paintings, along with my more accustomed pursue of color and harmony.  In this blog I pursue and explore how that happens in my current series of paintings, “In Balance with Nature”. I hope to convince the readers here that “simplicity comes from complexity of thinking”, as one of my art professors kept repeating in his lectures, but one that I personally have had difficulty with for many years.  An Asian American friend also critiqued some of my earlier paintings as “not having enough space”, suggesting that both equally contribute to the integration of the whole, as well demonstrated in several thousand years of Chinese brush paintings.  It’s been a struggle for me to appreciate and then apply this concept, but I offer the following several examples of my efforts.

“In Balance with Nature #41”, 15.5” x 22”, Acrylic and ink on paper, Thom Wright 2020

For the sake of contrast, the first image shown above is one of my latest abstract paintings in this series.  Many more are also presented in my art website portfolio under the “In Balance with Nature” category.  It is quite apparent how filled the work is with shapes and colors, almost a hierarchy of areas and shapes within them that create many movements and rhythms, a play among the repetition of shapes with changing colors, sizes, directions and values.  It holds together by the comparable activity in each of the major divisions and how they relate to each other and make a integrated, whole work. This painting serves as a counterexample to my paintings that breathe.

“House on the Colorado Plain”, Acrylic and ink on paper, 15” x 22.5”, Thom Wright  2019

Last year, while I was in the midst of my “In Balance with Nature” series, I made this second painting shown above as an abstract landscape.  The high horizon line and small diagonal angles also contribute to the feeling of recession and distance.  The light blue at the top is naturally recessive and suggests sky.  The blue below the horizon line suggests water.  A warm yellow-orange tone over most of the paper has light valued brush markings in shallow diagonals that contribute to the feeling of the plain.  It also sets up the burnt siennas, reds, browns and dark greys in the major triangle with inner vertical brushstrokes that suggest the grasslands and prairie.  But compared with the first painting, it effectively presents a design with lots of room, and negative space that amplifies the few lines and shapes in it.  The composition sets up the distant house as a focal point, using a linear grid structure that leads to the distant house that was in then under construction.  By keeping the painting simple and gestural, and keeping most of it light and thinly painted, all the parts become the whole.

Another one of my art history professors also repeated this theme of less is more. She pointed out many times in lectures that the greatest Western painters from Michelangelo in the 16th C., to Rembrandt in the 18th C., to Jackson Pollock in the 20th C., they all made paintings with room to breathe. She described it as having oxygen – ample use of space in landscapes, portraits and abstracts. I surmised that I was not the only art student who needed subtle advice.

“In Balance with Nature #41”, 15” x 22.5”, Acrylic and ink on paper, Thom Wright 2020

My third and latest painting shown above applies the lessons learned from the second painting, an abstract landscape, to my ongoing “In Balance with Nature” series.  This theme relates to representing the threat of climate change to both mankind and nature, and uses the California forests in stress from higher average temperature, more droughts and the increasing forest fires as a metaphor for the global threat. Finding a dynamic balance in the design is my metaphor for man finding a sustainable state of  balance with nature.

I use triangles to represent the trees.  The three horizontal divisions suggest three temporal states of the forests, changing from the cool blue-green (watery) at the bottom to the warmer and drier middle section, and then to the upper band with extremes of hot and cold in the red and blue colors.  The top section also has the brightest colors and unbalanced shapes that make it more active and the center of focus.  The rising diagonal lines indicate the direction of time from the bottom to the top.  Thus, my abstraction has the feeling of space and scale much greater that the rather small size of the paper, and uses spaces, and symbols in lines and triangles to convey a image of finding balance. 

At the present time, we are in a state of crisis with climate change, where science has foretold the future, given the past and the present conditions.  My art does not attempt to solve the crisis, but possibly to focus attention on the problem.  And maybe I succeeded with less is more.

On Color Development in Painting

By Thom Wright   August 2020

To many people having a sense of color seems natural, that as we mature we gain this just by seeing a lot of images. As described by Johannes Itten in his outstanding teaching book (The Elements of Color, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1970), he noticed that his students showed subjective preferences for different shades of color according to sex, body type, personality, culture and century.  But very few had an intuitive understanding in how to use and control color to enhance their art. His book opens the door to learning color theory and harmony, whatever your preferences and purposes. This book was the basis of my art class taken at Cal State University Long Beach in 2002, and I highly recommend it for study to all art students and artists.

This blog presents some of my examples in use of color through my education and subsequent practice of art.  The following aspects of color relate to its basic dimensions across the color wheel, the seven kinds of contrast of color, and a few more considerations:

  • Light vs. dark
  • Analogous vs. complementary
  • Bright vs. dull
  • Warm vs cool
  • Contrast of chroma (color saturation)
  • Tints vs. tones (adding white or black or both
  • Equal values vs. Limited values vs. wide range values
  • Hue vs hue
  • Simultaneous contrast of hues
  • Transparent vs. opaque
  • Texture and density vs. flatness
  • Contrast of material
  • Contrasts of color extension

Then to make a painting or work of art, add to these elements the size, format, media, types of line, shape, background, and lighting color, degree of representation or abstraction, etc., making art can be almost too complex to explain.  Rather, adding more understanding of what happens when mixing color may benefit each artist’s direction.

“Stripes”, Gouache on watercolor paper, 5” x 7”, Thom Wright 2002

One way to begin to study color is with stripe paintings, such as the exercise shown above.  Asking which of the previous list of color constrasts are applicable to this piece is the beginning of understanding its sequence.  From the white and black beginning, it moves through cool colors using a cool green-gray ground.  Then after a light grey band begins the warm color sequence on the right.  A dark blue is first introduced to heighten the warmth of the yellow ochre, then moving into the yellows.  These yellows gain strength from the cool and warm reds, and a dark brown-black.  The last band closes with another light grey.

“Windows”, 5” x 7”, Gouache on watercolor paper, Thom Wright 2002

This piece shown above is a variation on the vertical stripes design, but has a chocolate brown window frame to intensify the color contrasts. Yellows and oranges darken to cool browns, but with the yellow on the left side really pumps up the luminosity and glow of the yellow.  A pale brown acts as another analogous brown, but in lighter value that still intensifies the yellow.  A light red stripe next to the yellow becomes cool.  Beginning in the large window on the right side, a yellow-green is a complement to the red stripe and  it has a slightly cooler yellow vertical to emphasize the warm glow of yellow-green.  Next, a sequence of light blues begin a much cooler sequence of orange, yellow-green, mint-green, cool red-orange (which in its pure mixture is the hottest color), and then two more cooler greens.  The greens are neutral, but next to the light blues have a greater glow.  So the sequence has a hot-to-cool sequence, and all of them stand out more against the chocolate brown frame.

“Blue-Yellow Architecture”, 5” x 7”, Gouache on watercolor paper, Thom Wright 2002

This third color composition shown above uses dominant blues against yellows and black, with a light-brown mounting mat. The simplicity of its design suggests a three-dimensional scene, while the strong color tends to push the two-dimensional aspect.  The few diagonals are key to suggesting the 3-D space, as well as the variation in blue values next to each other.  Usually, white advances next to most darker colors, but the human understanding of architecture pushes the white rectangle back the farthest.  In most primitive and ancient cultures, blue/yellow is a perfect complement, whereas on our modern color wheel it is blue/orange.  And notice that the black is viewed as a cool color versus a neutral color in this construction.

“Village”, 5” x 7”, Collage with colored papers, Thom Wright  2002

This last piece shown above works with a wide range of color papers, with the yellows setting the color of light.  The blue and blue-violet at the top appear as shifted sky colors, because they both are recessive with the other colors advancing to the foreground.  Even the black advances by its high degree of value difference, compared to the yellows around it.  But the red-orange triangle next to the black advances even more than the yellows and the black.  Similarly, the three-color rectangle in the lower left also advances more than the light yellow. Thus, each subgrouping of color shapes have a relative warm/cool contrast, a light/dark contrast, and some show a progression of analogous colors as a grouping.  The whole reads as suggestive of a building architecture.  Their adjacent color contrasts and their group-to-group contrasts create the movement of the shapes and their energy.

Exploring color is a continuing effort for most artists, even after all this “education”.  I may have used heightened color examples, but the “eye” learns to see what is happening, and it is still exciting to discover new paint colors and how they work. 

About More Small Paintings

By Thom Wright August 2020

Who can say why or how, but in this COVID-age week I am continuing to make small paintings. My premise has changed, where my goal now is to make these miniatures sing with color as well as their earlier attributes.  My motivation was suspect, because I had just made four wooden frames for four small 9” x 11” prints made by my deceased wife back in 2002-3. But for the life of me, I built 9” x 12” frames instead.  Four of them in fact, and that led me to make more small paintings (6” x 9”) and then, with the matting and framing, get to this frame 9″ x 12″ frame size.

So what happened was I made three 6” x 9” paintings, and by the way made three more 9” x 9” mixed media works on paper.  Somehow I have spent another week making small paintings like I have never made before.

         “Planetary Rhythm #1”, 6” x 9”, Mixed media on paper, Thom Wright 2020

Let’s begin with the first mixed media work, shown in the image above.  No longer having that Japanese printed paper with circles, I had to make my own patterned paper.  I have previously commented that small works do better with more complex designs, with more stuff in them.  First, I made initial designs using a dark brown printing ink, and hand-printed many sizes and partial prints of circles, using any and all “circle” tool shapes I could find, including a tin can, a smaller plastic jar cap, and a few of my socket wrenches for the smallest sizes.  Then, again, I went searching in my art storage cabinets for more source materials.  I selected some altered, copied, NASA maps of the earth that were produced by one of their climate change prediction models in 1996, and made gesso transfers of small slices of these page size maps to begin my construction process. 

A word about small size works.  Pencil lines are to scale, they read like they are drawn.  However, earth maps scaled down to one to two inches in size are overfilled in content, yet may be readable, and somehow work along side the simple drawn lines and flat painted triangles and other geometric shapes.  On the computer screen, these small paintings are magnified and lose some of their charm and mystery, in that they combine the much larger and much smaller pieces together and make a small painting happen.  It is a feeling like intimacy with this size of art that also becomes appreciated.

Referring back to my first image, it is apparent that the colors in the maps become the dominant color scheme.  Browns and blues over the value range become pale yellow oranges to burnt umber browns.  Knowing these colors led me to select the tan or dun colored watercolor paper.  The lines in the map also suggest the pencil lines, not being strict navigational curves on the earth, but broken lines, arrowhead lines, and geological and political map lines.  All these lines easily expand into the non-geometric matrix on the paper.  Where ever the lines occur, they prompt more lines, and their intersections make these wonderful triangles happen over the paper.  I did begin by boldly painting the translucent white central area, but after that it becomes intuitive, the construction of relationships of the triangles and other shapes that imply movement, rhythm and relationship.  Thus, the piece of map at the beginning takes its own direction with the painter’s interpretation and makes a painting.

         “Planetary Rhythm #2”, 6” x 9”, Mixed media on paper, Thom Wright, 2020

In my second image shown above, I have taken other pieces from the same NASA map and inserted them to begin this painting.  There are certainly similarities recognized by comparison with the first image.  And there are differences.  The largest circular shape is more central and has expanding concentric curves extending over the paper.  The distribution of blues, browns and oranges quickly become its own image with its own peculiarities. Both of these show my preference for combinations of orange/blue values and dark brown, blue and black shapes.  The large central map emits lines and colors, and there are also very small red and blue arrowheads on lines to and from the central map.  This composition looks nothing like science or geometry, even though it borrows so much from them.  Our education imbues the design with meaning and mystery, and it may be unique for each viewer.  That is one of the amazing aspects of abstract art, that what the painter created becomes something else to each viewer. 

        “Planetary Rhythm #6”, 9” x 9”, Mixed media on paper, Thom Wright  2020

In my third small work image shown above, I change the format to a square, but then apply many of the same painting processes and colors used in the first rectangular format works.  The square format has its challenges, especially in its requirement to offset elements and shapes from the many “static” locations, such as the center of the square.  And yet, there has to be a dynamic stability to achieve its balance working with its asymmetry.  The complex map segments initiate the continuation of lines and curves, and their intersections suggest the patterning of space with the oranges, blues and browns, made with transparent inks and with opaque gouache colors mixed with varying amounts of white.  The central large white square made at the beginning lights the design and creates the play of shapes and colors of varying hues, and the tints and tones modulating them across the paper. In this case I mounted the work on a dark brown matt with the same outer white matt on the top, and it also shifts the intensity and importance of the different colors. 

With these three descriptions of my “map” small paintings, I hope that those viewers who are attracted to them can better understand my intentions and meanings in these works.  Perhaps in some future time they can be displayed and seen as they are to me.  I personally have grown to appreciate small paintings as never before.

On Making Small Paintings

By Thom Wright August 2020

In general I have avoided making small paintings, but continue to make them as preparatory and exploratory works before going on to larger sizes.  My smallest work over that past ten years has been 16” x 16” paintings.  But this past week has been introspective for me.  Deep in the bottom corners of my prints storage I found a couple of 9” x 9” unfinished paper works from maybe 10-15 years ago, and decided to return to them.  This paper is probably Japanese made, is tan-colored and fibrous, hard to tear, slightly translucent, printed with randomly distributed little concentric circles in black ink, and I had started some pencil drawings on them.  I think my wife Linda bought these papers about 20 years ago at a Japanese arts paper store in the Bergamont Station Gallery area in Santa Monica.  She loved buying all kinds of art sheets and unusual papers that I have since inherited and now really enjoy using in my mixed media art work.  I also wanted to start working again with gouache paint, an opaque water-based paint that I have had for even more years without use.  After all these months of stay-in living with the corona-virus, I was probably in need of finding something new and different to do in my art.  Of course there has been political and cultural upheavals with the impact of the plague on the economy, the “Black Lives Matter” dealing with police brutality and racism, the broad political divide in national politics that has stagnated cooperation, and the growing divide of culture and politics in America.  By now all of us are feeling constrained and growing somewhat tired of our quarantine life-style.

“Work on Paper #1”, 9”x 9”, Mixed Media on paper, Thom Wright  2007 – 2020

In the first piece shown above, there also was a central area of translucent white acrylic paint applied, where the little circles are still visible.  I continued first with adding pencil lines to it according to the following rule:  “Lines may either pass between the circles, or continue beyond the circles if they go directly through the centers.”  Although the circles initially appeared to be randomly placed, my lines then developed into a strange array of triangles of many sizes and orientations.  Note that I have been painting triangles frequently in my abstract paintings for the past three years.  Next, I began to paint a few colors in inks and in qoauche, with the colors and values varying and located informally throughout.  I kept a “walnut” color, transparent ink mostly on the four sides of brown paper, because the darker walnut color would make the brown paper more radiant. 

The central white area began to intrigue me in that the thinner lighter colors and thicker darker colors also began to light up.  Having worked with mosaic grid paintings recently, I now added another rule to the composition, that the colored triangles be interspersed among the remaining white triangles in order to keep the 2D flatness of the design and to make the white triangles play as negative shapes as well as a background.  The simple blue/brown harmony of color has worked for me in earlier works.

To continue with my game, I expanded the variety of circle and triangle shapes to add quirky additions here and there, small collage pieces of those little black circles that were torn off at the beginning to square the paper.  Then I changed some of the light-blue triangles to medium and dark blues. I also added a few pieces of grey-colored collage.  I extended some of the white central area into the brown paper edges in places, always keeping in mind that the central white area remains flat and the dominant light.

At this point I decided to mount the paper work on a light blue-grey matt board, and include another inch of space on all four sides for an outer, white matt board too.  Having reached that point, I then began to make a hardwood frame, 1 1/2“  wide, bringing the total size to 12” x 12” (not shown).  Almost all of my handmade frames are stained dark “Early American” brown, and that would also enhance the dominant brown colors used here. 

“Work on Paper #2”, 12” x 12”, Mixed media on paper, Thom Wright  2007 – 2020

In my second piece, I pretty much followed the same game rules, yet made a different composition.  There are more small, dark triangles.  I mixed a little yellow ochre in with the light brown for a few shapes.  On the whole, the composition feels lighter, and all the quadrants have different kinds of interesting patterns.  I also added transparent blue-greys to the left and right sides, and extended the central white to the bottom edge to suggest an entry point.  Instead of mounting it on the blue-grey matt board, I used a warm light-brown colored matt board that would complement the blues. It still reads as a 2D flat composition, but different from the first one. Also, the photos of the paintings do not communicate the intimate nature of the raw paper in a small work.

After a few days of gazing at these pieces, I tried to understand where they came from.  All those triangles emanating from the sides and meeting and intersecting with the others, what is that about? In abstract shape terms, circles are complete, self-sufficient, static, and eternal, and here they are downplayed, somewhat covered with white and browns.  Triangles abstractly are force vectors that make energy, create movement in forward directions, and collide together at places.  All of this action happening along straight lines at many active diagonal angles, and all in a small and calm and static, square format.  These designs are new to me, and I have usually understood what the designs are doing and what they mean.  Are they somehow related to our current constraints on living?  Possibly.  I hereby leave it up to the viewers to make up their own minds.  As for me, I am not soliciting for psychological interpretations, but like that as abstracts, they can be provocative and mysterious.  Tempis Fugit. Thom

The “Jazz Combo” Series, Part II

Monotypes Part 2, The “Jazz Combo” Series

By Thom Wright 2020

Continuing from my earlier post on “The Jazz Series”, started in 2018, I continued making a series of 50 monotypes that year.  Most of them I kept and framed, and in this post, I describe my second of three groups of prints, those made using an 18” x 24” format.  The first series used a 16” x 20” format, where I explored and became comfortable with the rapid printmaking process that allows only about 30 – 40 minutes of working time on a single plate before it is run through the press.

My larger format of monotypes builds and expands on what I had learned earlier, and tries several new directions in color and design.  I wanted to make works of different moods – corresponding to different kinds of jazz music that I listened to on KJZZ FM radio (88.1) almost every day while making my art.

       “Jazz Combo #20”, 18” x 24”, oil-based ink on Rives BFK paper, Thom Wright  2018


In my first image shown above, I kept with the three-figure jazz combo playing on-stage.  The figures and their instruments are more complex and colorful.  On a gradated background of orange to yellow to a pale yellow, the figures stand out with reds, browns and saved paper whites.  A darker burnt umber is used for the lower ground and has its own play of three organic shapes made using a perforated thin plastic bread-loaf wrappers that are cut and hand-torn to create their dancing shapes, almost like reflections of the figures.  The three instruments played by the three musicians are in a strikingly bright blue, as well as a potted plant of nasturtiums set on the lower ground.  Nasturtium leaves are liberally used as the heads of figures, growing plants, and in the upper region as emblems of music making. Of course the instruments are innovative in their playful shapes and movements.  The composition becomes a rhythm of the suggested music, with the sizes, colors, shapes and lines all active and interlocking with each other.

“Jazz Combo #22”, 18” x 24”, oil-based inks on Rives BFK paper, Thom Wright 2018

In my second monotype shown above, the combo grows to five figures. The three iconic bands of ground colors make the major divisions vertically, with yellow at the top, a large brown-black section in the middle, and a cooler yellow ochre at the bottom.  The male and female figures stand out in a range of reds and blues, with drawn outlines dancing around them.  Their instruments dance with varied diagonals and idiosyncratic shapes, accompanied with some floating hands of the players.  Their feet are also drawn into the lower ground color and stand upon two bands of colored ground shapes, again suggesting rhythmic movement to the music. 

In the yellow area above the figures is a natural setting of a potted nasturtium growing from a blue pot, and they have their rhythm too. A variety of organic line is made with both the stems of nasturtiums and some hand drawing. Just to be sure, I tossed in a few musical notations to make it hum.

The ground region has two color bands, with the thinner upper band made using a torn strip of newspaper that is then lightly inked with color, and the lower band made with the bread-loaf plastic wrapper, with roughly torn edges and playfully inked colors.  Just to be sure, I drew a red wobbly line around the paper shape using a red oil-based crayon.  Altogether, there is lots of pieces and parts and marks, but the strong value and color changes of the three bands of ground color manage to hold it together.  The music takes you away, where ever you begin.

“Jazz Combo #31”, 18” x 24”, oil-based ink on Rives BFK paper, Thom Wright  2018


In my third monotype image shown above, the two ground colors of yellow above and black below hold the composition together.  But it gets really moving and complex in an almost explosive pattern of parts.  Figures are free patterns of a collection of shapes and colors.  Multiple instruments are played by each figure.  Hands come to the instruments from where ever they belong.  Three of the four figures sprout from pots on the floor.  Their heads appear in several places and in several sizes.  The nasturtium leaves are intermixed with the torn plastic organic shapes intermittently.  Some of them are even green.  Maybe this is the hot, new, experimental jazz being played, but whatever I was hearing made it happen – 2 # # !,,)(  **@ + %!.  Does it hold together, well, if it appeals to you, better turn on the jazz and listen and watch what happens.

I will be adding another ten of these monotypes to my “Jazz Combo” page on my website this week. Till then, Thom

On Experimental Silk Screen Printmaking

Back in 2002 I was taking an advanced printmaking class at CSULB. There was a different method/technique to learn every one or two weeks. Students were expected to define their own approach and theme for each of them. For the silk-screen printmaking assignment, I chose to do a rather simple mask-and-template cutouts approach first. The beginning silk screen provides a multi-colored block print that is then further developed with additional mixed media or finer silk-screen applications on top of the first level print. Note that each color requires its own silk-screen application, including the drying time for each layer. Generally speaking, silk screens are a very effective way to make colorful compositions using just a few hues and colors. For my theme I chose to develop a figurative work based on Dante Aligheri, a 13th century Italian poet who became famous for this long poem, “Divine Comedy”, that describes his view of the 13 rings of the medieval reality stretching from heaven to earth to hell. In two weeks I had to make ten copies of my series of silk-screen prints and then modify each of them to create a set of ten finished silk-screen monoprints. This group of prints is like a theme and variation set of work with a common beginning design.

“Divine Comedy #2″, 24″ x 18”, Mixed Media Silk Screen on Rives BFK paper, Thom Wright 2002

My first image shown above is one of the ten mixed-media silk-screen prints of my “Divine Comedy” series from 2002. After I made the silk screen, I then used colored pencils and drawing ink to refine the central image of Dante. However, as a composition, I never felt that it was completed. The beginning silk screen layers are too separate and the standing-figure-in-an-alcove design was too static. Although I did complete the class assignment, I then put these prints in my file drawer for the next 18 years. Dante himself might have been disappointed.

“Divine Comedy #5″, 24″ x 18”, Mixed Media silk-screen print, Thom Wright, 2002 – 2020

After these 18 years of not deciding what to do with these silk-screen prints, I finally decided that I am a painter and that I could improve these prints with some gouache painting. For all of those not familiar with this medium, gouache paints are water-based opaque paint that goes back about 150 years. Most watercolor painters don’t like to used opaque paints, because they are not transparent unless the color is thinned down with lots of water. My second image shown above of the #5 silk-screen print includes both thick and thin gouache painted over parts of the original silk screen work. I chose a light valued blue-grey color, which includes white gouache to lighten the value, as well as added water to thin the paint and make it semi-transparent.

Comparing these two images, one can see that the blue-grey lines added over the reds, yellows, greens and the bare white paper really integrates the composition and adds its own painterly marks. I varied the density of the blue-greys in different areas to get a mixture of subtle variations. They cool down the bright yellows and the hot flat reds to add more variety of color to the silk screen print and to soften many of the hard-edged color shapes that did not come together. Also, there are variations in the blue-grey gouache in parallel brush strokes that add a variety of mark making and texture as well as cool color.

“Divine Commedia”, 24″ x 18″, Mixed media and silk screen inks on BFK paper, Thom Wright 2002 -2020

In my third image shown above I show another application of light blue-grey gouache to another one of the ten silk screens. I point out that there were some variations in each of the original ten silk screen prints. Again, I added a light blue-grey brush marks over many of the original colors, and gain a better integration of the composition. In this one I also added a light-warm pink gouache color to the central figure’s face and left arm, because the values and color were off. In the red alcove area above the figure, the light blue-greys are shifted with more blues in some of the marks to both reduce the flat broad red area and add more variation to the alcove. Note too that adding the blue-grey completes the color composition and makes it more pleasing to the eye.

For my Dante figure I found an old painting of him, done after he had passed away. But it gave me a model to work from. None of the ten images in the ten silk screens are really not the same, but that does not matter to a Modernist painter in the 21st century. I hope that those reading this blog are following my logic and argument that you can draw on the Western art tradition of painting, and even make references to the past, while making a contemporary work or art.

On Representational Figurative Painting

By Thom Wright 2020

A Western art tradition for over 500 years, representational figure painting continues to be taught and practiced today.  In my art education I spent about ten years taking classes to draw and paint the figure.  After doing undergrad required art courses part time for four years at Cal State U Long Beach in 2004, I was then accepted into the graduate art program, based on my figurative portfolio.  But in 2005 I had changed my direction to abstract painting, and all that figurative study and practice did help in making that change and better understand expressive painting.

“Linda Quilting at the Window”, 36” x 42”, Oil on canvas, Thom Wright  2002

In the painting shown above, my wife Linda posed for me in the morning light of the stained glass window that she had made.  Students in life painting classes usually paint family and friends as free volunteers who might like to have a painting.  The quality of the painting is not like Vermeer, but it does show expressive qualities of strong warm color light and patterning almost everywhere.  I personally prefer this brushy rendering more than photographic copying, and as with many figurative painters over that past 200 years, I have shifted away from competing with the camera, and in general am making more expressive paintings. Also note that the framing of the figure by the window adds a geometric order, and there is a symmetric rhythm of rectangular shapes in the window panes to counter all the curves in the figure.

“Seated Woman in the Studio”, 24” x 30”, Oil on canvas, Thom Wright  2002

In my second painting shown above, a work done in a three-hour class session at CSULB, I was fortunate to have a frontal view and lighted with a sky light above and two lamps left and right.  However, I first made a pencil sketch of the composition on the horizontal canvas to bring the figure forward and make the parts relate to the whole.  Again, notice how the arrangement of the palette tables and stacked canvas frames behind the figure provide a rhythmic movement of geometric shapes that contrast with the figure.  The lighting creates good volumetric forms on the figure as well as shadows her face, adding to the contemplative mood.  I changed the background drapery to greens to heighten the complementary green/red dominate colors.  Her lighted gray hair adds focus to her face and relates to her workout clothes in light and dark grays. The gestural brushmarks of paint add to the spontaneous feel and consistency of painting handling throughout the painting.  Even the tilting of the stretched canvases behind the figure echo her shoulders and provide a movement to the figure. Thus, this life painting shows my developing skills in composition and expressive painting style that I sought.

“Two Seated Figures”, acrylic on canvas, 18” x 24”, Thom Wright  2010

I continue to do occasional figurative works, as the painting shown above, made four years after my graduation and still searching for new directions.  It began with a fairly representational rendering of the two figures, then went in four different directions as the painting evolved into a painting with figures versus a painting about figures.  The male/female differences in body shapes and psychological mood gets reinforced by the opposing seated stances, by their dress and by the strong cast shadows behind them.  Note how the wall, seat and cushions, and floor have abstract patterns and a wide range of colors and values, all relating to and interacting with the figures and shadows.  She wears white shoes, and he is barefoot, but has a white line surrounding one foot that is sorta tied to her shoes.  His yellow-green aura surrounds his upper body, but is smaller, softer and only surrounds her head.  Thus, there are many relating parts and features throughout the painting while supporting and strengthening the narrative and the composition. 

On Mixed Media Collage Painting

By Thom Wright  2020

One of the many paths towards abstract painting begins with watercolor and paper collage.  In my first twenty years as a landscape watercolor painter, I had read about many other painters working this way, and I experimented with it as well.  The salient requirement here is to make the added pieces of paper fit in with the watercolor 2-D composition as well as read as distinct colored and/or textured paper shapes.  The amount of adding and blending the paper shapes with the painted shapes can take a beginning painting in many different directions and degrees of abstraction.  My preference has been towards a 50/50 balance, letting the paper shapes and painted shapes read as both representational and abstract patterning.

“Pierside Pavilion Excavation”, 18” x 24”, Watercolor and Collage on rag paper, Thom Wright 1989

My landscape watercolor/collage painting made in 1989 illustrates how this combination of collage and paint can merge into a consistent whole.  I began the watercolor at a building site in downtown Huntington Beach, with a view towards Pacific Coast Highway and the beach, and Main Street on the right side of the lot.  In this early stage of the development, the excavation was near completion, about three stories deep that would become underground parking for the future “Pierside Pavilion” building. Before I started painting, I had walked around the perimeter of the development site, and would find a lot of trash that I occasionally picked to use as possible collage papers.  To me they also functioned as cultural artifacts of this location in a major state of transformation.  In this exploratory approach towards semi-abstraction, I begin a pencil sketch on the paper, keeping in mind how the papers may work as collage. 

In the bottom section of the finished painting, there are a piece of a red cigarette package, and a Jack-in-the-Box wrapper. They suggest temporary contractor structures and boxes.  Along the left side and back side of the construction pit, there is a combination of vertical stripes of collage paper and painted stripes that portray the support girders of the dirt walls used in construction before the concrete walls are made. These collage papers are easily recognized as torn strips of candy wrappers and black asbestos paper.  In the orange horizontal across the top edge of the pit, there are additional paper receipt strips that are then transparently painted also to portray the fencing around the perimeter of the site. Thus, the painting is a rendering of the site as well as bits and pieces of the site itself.

“Lisbon Jazz Duet”, Watercolor & paper collage on rag paper, 2ea 16” x 12”, Thom Wright  2017

In my second watercolor and collage painting, shown above, the use of paper collage is more extensive.  I was on a family trip to Europe at the time, and in Lisbon, Portugal.  It was summer, very hot and bright during the day, but with sea breezes and cast shadows from city buildings.  The scene shows a jazz duet group playing at an outdoor restaurant, where we enjoyed both the dinner and the music. To integrate the locally found trash papers of Lisbon into the painting, the watercolor is boldly drawn with brush marks. There are pieces of the gold lining paper from a cigarette package surrounding the two musicians that represent the emanating sounds of music. It is apparent that the collage papers are shaped and added to the painting at the beginning, followed then by the watercolor brushmarks that fill in the figures and spaces.

“Sailing to Byzantium”, 14” x 14”, Mixed Media and collage on paper, Thom Wright  2020

In the third mixed media and collage painting shown above, and finished today, an open abstract began with earth map fragments that were gesso transferred to the gessoed paper. The second step was to paint the grey and green background area that carves out the remaining map fragments and begins to suggest islands, continents and sailing vessels with engine smoke pouring out from their smoke stacks, and all parts surrounded by a green ocean.  To further suggest it as a map, a grey crayon was used to draw isometric ocean-depth lines in the background.  Thus, there is an ambiguity of smoke patterns with continents and islands. 

At this point the painting was still rather drab and vague, so that the minute elements in the maps were not apparent and the positive/negative pieces were too distributed.  I decided to extend the range of color and to embellish the ships and continents with more pieces of colored collage papers.  In my colored papers inventory I found several pieces of brightly colored stripes, and cut sections of those into horizontal ship-hull shapes and vertical buildings.  These increased the color and presence of those ships and play into the reds and blues of the continents and islands.  Finally, I cut very small “flying flag” shapes of many colors, and glued those onto the continents and islands.

Knowing when to stop painting and collaging is another long learning trip, and at this point I decided that it was done.  It still has the global mapping presence and the added mysterious narrative of the smoking ships and flags.  The added bright collage pieces enhance the character and distinctive identity of the ships, yet has a foreboding suggestion of pollution generated by all of the shipping traffic. That led me to choose the title of a dark poem by the 19th/20th century Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, called “Sailing to Byzantium”.  He was both a Romantic and a Modernist Poet, whose central contention was that the Irish imagination was not in any way incomplete, and could provide a gateway to a fuller, richer form of human imagination that was lost as a consequence of modernization and the Industrial Revolution. Contemporary artists today can still find inspiration in his work.

On Figurative Painting

For years I studied the figure, in many life drawing classes especially. While I did learn proportion, I could not transfer that experience to painting the figure. Painting is different from drawing, where it’s brushes, not charcoal or pencil, and color versus greys. My better drawings tend to be expressionistic, and that’s the direction that now appeals to me. My goal is to reach a “resemblance” and a graphic composition with energy and meaning. The farther away from the photograph and realistic representation, the better.

“Seated Man”, 24″ x 30″, Acrylic on paper, Thom Wright, 1989 – 2016

My best painting class back in 1989 was Abstract Figurative Painting, taken at OCC. Not that it was easy, but that my instructor, Clark Walding, knew how to do it, and very effectively teach it. We all were in different directions, but his tips, discussions of contemporary American abstract figurative painters proved to be invaluable. In the “Seated Man” shown above, I have probably repainted it five times over the last 20 years. The figure has not changed much, but the chair and background and that strange “torch” on the left side kept changing, until it finally came together. All the parts play together, the space is defined by the figure, yet it stands as a structured grouping of rhythms and relationships. Keeping parts of the black background and mixing in the blue shapes came as a way to make those parts play together with the seated figure. Letting color happen too adds to the relationships and the aura of the man with the broken arm.

“On Stage”, 22″ x 29″, Acrylic on Arches rag paper, Thom Wright, 1989

Another of my paintings from this class shown above went through two more re-paintings, with the female figure kept intact. A simple division with changes and similarities of color and mark making, add up to another story of “the whole determines the relationship of the parts”, to quote Wassily Kandinsky speaking about abstract art. The two performers/dancers share the stage, immersed in the lower shapes and the red/green complementary colors. Even the bordering edges play as part of the whole. The values in the colors in the figures do not relate to lighting or direction, but to the play of colors and marks.

“Self-Portrait with Guitar”, 28″ x 22″, Acrylic on canvas, Thom Wright, 2015

When painting the figure, always start with, and return to the self-portrait, artists have said. It is well recognized material and no modelling cost. In my self-portrait done in 2015, I wanted to capture my love of jazz guitar. I still continue to practice and try to play occasionally. At this time I was in to Cubist paintings, and I did a few still-life with guitar pieces. So it borrows its composition from those earlier works, having a still life setting on a table with tablecloth and chair. The parts kept growing as I went, adding the extra guitar necks, hands and arms to emphasize the movement and the syncopated rhythms. And as I have done in many other paintings and monotypes, I added the outer wavy circles taken from nasturtium leaves that seem to creep into my work. Here they signify the emanating jazz visually.

What really brought this painting together was in the repetition of black shapes in the center. They move from the table base to the table top to the guitar sound hole to my black and grey shirt, and finally to the black guitar necks. Who knew that a bouquet pattern could make a self-portrait?

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