Persimmon Life Studies

How Soon is Now – Douglas Witmer

How Soon is Now?

How Soon is Now?, 2008

Brent Douglas, Let’s get a bit of background here. The bars of color and the use of black gesso go back to 2006. I think you sent to Tokyo a very early piece that utilized bands and the black gesso. In that piece the bands of color were thin lines. A grayish field read as something the lines were sitting on.

Douglas In fact that piece I sent to Tokyo was the very first one made with the black gesso in that manner, diluted and applied very wet. At the time I was trying see how thin I could get the paint. They’re barely more than watercolor consistency. I made two of the same size. I was about to fly to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit Chris Ashley and I was intending to give him one of them. (He now currently has both.) “Cloud Cover” seemed a fitting name for that approach

BH I’m looking at your web page ‘2004~present’. And need to go to ‘Overview’ to see your Black Keys.

The ‘Black Keys’ use the gesso to really solidify the form. And the color over the background creates an ambiguity within a field of different planes. This gets worked out utilizing a number of strategies. Marquee Moon is a really good example of how well the position of the lighter block of acrylic sits. The black doesn’t read as background. And if the presence of the light center band suggests at times ‘bosoming’, or folding back under the pressure of two black areas, it doesn’t. It declares itself.

DW It’s all about the qualities of the surfaces and colors and how they interact with each other. In “The Black Keys” the black is quite strong as a color, but as a physical skin of paint on the surface, it’s very thin, soft, matte, and light-absorbing…and actually rather fragile, too. The areas of color were decided upon after the black was established. They were painted quickly, thinly, but they all have a somewhat glossy sheen. They’re strong colors, but because they’re transparent, they seem thinner and perhaps weaker than the black, but you can see that as a surface they are “on top.” And taken together I hope, as you suggest, that these two overlaid planes of color are totally interdependent.

Marquee Moon

BH Quite often your paintings, and again, in this period, 2006 on, make use of pencil and color pencil. Sometimes I notice this online. An example might be that a pencil line gets drawn with a ruler. And you use that to begin painting. So one edge will be more squared. The other sometimes slanted.

DW Actually, no. I think what you’re seeing is intentional misregistration of layers of color. I used (and continue to use) tape for the edges. But I have a love/hate relationship with it. I don’t measure and don’t square. It’s all done visually. Layer by layer I adjust the positions of the bars. I also frequently allow the paint to bleed just so. This way of using taped edges is perhaps a stand-in for hand painting them. But I’ve tried to hand paint the edges and it hasn’t felt right. So now I call what I’m doing “soft-core hard edge.” Regarding the colored pencil, I occasionally used it to introduce more color around the edges of the bars, but in a super subtle way. When you get up close to it, “Marquee Moon” has almost the whole rainbow fringing the light blue center band. Unfortunately that detail, like many details in my work, gets lost generally in photography, and completely lost in online images.

BH The recent work, which a sample is up now at M55, seems to be fairly squared. I might be wrong. I have two good jpegs you sent and in Photoshop when I use rulers they come up pretty squared. So what does that mean, you are intuitively squaring at the moment? And what of the ones that have bars that pull down or lift up to one side, can you mention something about that too!

DW Your sense about the square is right: I’m slightly allergic to the long rectangle for the edges of the painting surface. I choose size and scale the same way I figure out the position of the colored bars. It is what feels right to me physically. I’m not sure what it means, but I will say that I have noticed that now more than ever in my life I feel painting, and the paintings, in my body. Just musing more about that here in the moment. Perhaps it has to do with getting a little older, and noticing my family. On one hand there are my children whose bodies are incredibly fresh; they have bounce and resiliency. On the other hand there’s my parents and grandparents. We’ve been overall a pretty healthy bunch until the past several years. I watch my dad, who never took a sick day in his life, now deal with his cancer. I think I’m like him in that I’ve hardly ever had to think about the limits of my body. But now as I imagine what he feels like, I begin to pay more attention.

New DrifterBHNew Drifter’ Black gesso and acrylic on canvas, 50 x 44 inches is a mid scale painting, one of seven currently on show at M55 Long Island. Definitely a body painting, there is this large expanse of yellow, very soft, but strong enough not to go green under the pressure of the background color coming through. Though, of course, the background does come through, however we are still reading yellow, a thin layer of it. The yellow gives off this very even feel. There is a sense of horizontal drag with the color. Some parts you can see the vertical watery slide of the thin veils of gray underneath. Everything feels quiet and there is hum.

You notice though, let’s call it the head area; the top gray has a similar treatment to the yellow. Marks have been neutralized. And while the reading is very soft, the sense is that it’s quite a thick veil, as an illusion. This, to my mind, stops the painting from receding at the top. The bottom gray area feels like it is part of the top gray, as does the just registering gray underneath the yellow. Though now, visually, all the parts of the gray are functioning differently. If we call the bottom part the legs of the painting–or something under the waist, from that horizontal expanse it’s as if you could nearly slip your hand up under that yellow like it were a pane of glass.
Any little secrets?

DW When you refer to the area where “marks have been neutralized” it suggests I was the one who did the neutralizing. In fact that is simply the result of a process I engage. As the pigment is cascaded down the surface hanging on the wall, it thins out and dries more quickly at the top, and tends to striate and gather towards the bottom. This particular process happens early in the overall painting process, and it sets the vertical orientation for the piece from then on, and often presents challenges. As I move forward I respond to the way it “grounds” the piece. And so when you describe the areas in “New Drifter” using bodily terms, it’s not so far off, I guess. I have noticed that this painting for me has a bit of a cruciform operation to it…the verticality of the wash and the horizontal brushing of the yellow bar. It matters immensely to me that one can see evidence of brushing, by the way.

But you might notice I also establish a border just within the edges of the canvas. They’re often subtle, but they’re extremely important related to establishing sense of space. The colored bars invariably break this inner border but never touch the outer edges of the canvas. Sometimes the gray washes do and do not break it. So there isdetail_dw_02081 this convergence of the actual edge of the canvas, an articulated but often ghosted interior border, a liquid wash whose edges more or less determine themselves, and finally the edges of the colored bars. And one part of the investigation is the kind of visual energy this all produces. I want the relationships to be elusive. I want the present moment of seeing it to be charged with the possibility of some kind of change in the next present moment of seeing it. I hope for that to activate the sense that you feel yourself seeing. I like to think of those moments as clear, pure, innocent, and solitary. And if you can get to them, then you have, in a way, started an experiential engine for yourself, and your thoughts can begin to move in uniquely personal directions.

My “secret” to share about this piece is anecdotal. Early last spring when the forsythia were blooming here in Pennsylvania I started a much smaller piece that is now abandoned, but maybe served as a study. I was thinking about the forsythia and also the title of a painting by Warren Rohrer called “High Yellow, Revisited.” I was curious about “high” and “yellow” and why those two words put together actually make sense to me. The little painting bothered me and I couldn’t make it work. For my last several shows I’ve done something at the extreme last minute that I call my “go for it” piece and invariably they make the cut. Once I basically have everything finished for a show, I just make a bonus piece under a tight deadline, and I use it as an exercise to be ambitious in some way with a nothing-to-lose attitude. I gave myself less than 48 hours to make “New Drifter,” beginning with stretching it. My goals were: I wanted to be as out of control as possible with the gray wash and I wanted to paint this “high yellow.” The title comes from a song.

BHHow Soon is Now?” 44 x 54 inches, 2008 has two horizontal bars that run pretty close. We are not talking subdued color here. It’s loud. But it’s ‘nature’ loud. But still you have this very synthetic space thing happening. The bars roll. They have the feeling that they roll around each other. Is that meant to happen? Batteries included?

DW The way I experience those bars is that they press toward each other, and compete to push forward. They’re of almost equal value and chroma. I’m glad you picked up on a nature reference, albeit very generalized. But they could just as easily be racing stripes. The whole thing to me feels speedy and compressed.

Install View - M55

Installation View M55 Long Island
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5 thoughts on “How Soon is Now – Douglas Witmer

  1. Pingback: MinusSpace » Blog Archive » How Soon is Now: Interview with Douglas Witmer Visual Discrepancies blog, by Brent Hallard

  2. Great to read all the behind the scenes thinking, Doug. I really love how aware you are of your own thinking/seeing and how carefully you consider all of your moves. The work rewards the viewer with all of that subtlety.

  3. Doug, I appreciate your commentary: the technical aspects are interesting, but not as vital
    to me, however your personal experiences and
    insights in your art are significant. “How soon is now” very much reminds me of Dr. Francis Schaeffer’s book “Escape from Reason” upper & lower storey analysis of art and poetry, written in 1968. Thank you for including me in the email. Keep up the fine work. Earl W. . .

  4. Pingback: Douglas Witmer — Catalogue, Public Lecture, Museum Acquisition

  5. Pingback: Exhibition Review, Public Lecture, Museum Acquisition » Douglas Witmer

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