New Painting: The Two Voids


The Two Voids, Oil on Panel, 24 x 36 inches, 2018

The momentum of summer is still bearing fruit. Above, a large painting of the Antarctic with a palette adapted from this double square. Lots of info, details, and preparatory work below.

Painting is the the primary means for synthesizing my experiences as a member of the United States Antarctic Program. I've visited and revisited the subject repeatedly since my final deployment wintering over at the Geographic South Pole in 2010. The first of these pictures is the one that started my professional practice, the South Pole Telescope I. Living in Antarctica is very dualistic. It's life affirming and terrifying. The continent's vastness is a testament to the awesome patience of geological time and humans go there in the pursuit of pure knowledge but the continent is also totally indifferent to human life. It swallows a few of us up relatively often as a reminder of who is in control. I hope I've captured that tension in this dark, energetic picture; a vast, cold darkness with a sky torn apart like a glistening wound.

The title of this picture, the Two Voids, is taken from Richard Byrd's book Alone in which he chronicles his 1934 winter over in Antarctica (I highly recommend it). Byrd wintered by himself and, to my knowledge, is the only person to have spent a winter by themselves in Antarctica. It didn't go well. Byrd suffered a series of life threading setbacks the worst of which was carbon monoxide poisoning (his stove leaked). He hallucinated during this event and believed he had become a flame "between two voids."

The main subject, the ship, is Ernest Shackleton's Endurance. The Endurance sailed to Antarctica in 1914 and became stuck in an ice flow that eventually sank it. This was long before the continent had any infrastructure and sinking your vessel was considered a death sentence. Shackleton, through shear tenacity and brilliant leadership, was able to save every human life on the expedition against herculean odds in the harshest environment on Earth. It's possibly the greatest survival story ever told, you can experience the ordeal through Shackleton's book South (also highly recommended). I've painted the Endurance before in The World Retrieved.

Glacier and icebergs on the left side of the picture. Thanks to Jami Lanto and Matt Tomczack for helping me troubleshoot this part of the picture. It was being badly misread by viewers and without their input this part of the picture would look very different.

The upper left hand corner of the picture features the constellation Crux, better known as the Southern Cross. Thanks to fellow United States Antarctic Program veteran Fran Sheil for sending me a photograph of the Southern Cross he shot from the South Pole - without him the orientation of the constellation would be wrong. In Antarctica the Southern Cross appears "upside down" in the manner above. It appears more or less "upright," in the Christian sense, from most of the southern hemisphere. This constellation was vitally important in the exploration of Antarctica (and all of the Southern Hemisphere) because it can be used to determine due south.

Thumbnail Sketch fo the Two Voids, Ink in Sketchbook, 2.25 x 3.25 inches, 2018

Here's the original thumbnail sketch for the painting. I've actually had this composition, or something similar, in my head since graduate school. There are probably other thumbnails somewhere of the painting as I've been contemplating it for years.

Oil Sketch fo the Two Voids, Oil on Panel, 5 x 7 inches, 2018

Oil Sketch fo the Two Voids (studio view), Oil on Panel, 5 x 7 inches, 2018

Because this painting has a complex palette I created a color study in addition to the initial thumbnail laying out the composition. These are usually called oil sketches and are miniature, loosely painted, preparatory works. The concept of the oil sketch is very old, maybe as old as oil painting itself. These loose renderings were the private property of artists, never exhibited. When one artist died another would purchase preparatory work from their estate and use these as reference materials for their own paintings. This would not have been considered plagarism. Rubens is said to have owned paintings of this type by Titian so we can securely date the practice to at least the High Renaissance . When we look at loosely painted images like these we tend to think of Impressionism but the style is much, much older. The Impressionists happened to be the first artists to hang these images in sight of the public and a controversy ensued, enshrining the style with their movement. This should not stand to diminish their contribution, it's just disingenuous to look at Impressionism as something wholly new without acknowledging it has long established presidents. Some of my favorite oil sketches are the little paintings produced by Georges Seurat for La Grande Jatte. I've been fortunate to run into around a dozen of them in my travels. Also, there are a few that live close to home in the Art Institute of Chicago.

More from the studio very soon...


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