cleaning the studio...

...and other adventures in art

the weight of art history

Original artwork by Barbara Downs, Night and Day, Acrylic/Mixed-Media on Unstretched Canvas

Night and Day, Acrylic/Mixed-Media on Unstretched Canvas (hung directly on wall with nails though grommets), 71″ x 106″, 2012

…weighting the edges of a stack of paintings with art books. The danger in this method is that I get distracted with the books, and then I get lost in the books.  And I certainly feel the weight of all that history!

heron double-take

Although I’ve been spending most of my time on the large figurative paintings,  I am still working with bird imagery and other pieces based on the natural world. I just finished this drawing, Heron Double-Take. Thank you, Susana Arias for this LARGE sheet of paper!

Original artwork by Barbara Downs, Heron Double-Take, Mixed-Media on Paper

Heron Double-Take, Mixed-Media on Paper, 80″ x 100″, 2013

Midway through this drawing, I thought I’d lost a wonderful beginning, and kept it on my wall for many months, while I pondered. Getting back into it finally, I found some direction and I think it came together in an interesting way.

In 2010, I did an encaustic work with the same heron, mirrored in the opposite direction. Clearly I was not yet done with this idea!

Original artwork by Barbara Downs, One Thing is Not the Other, Encaustic/Oil/Photo on Panel

One Thing is Not the Other, Encaustic/Oil/Photo on Panel, 20″ x 86″ x 2″, 2010, Private Collection

number twelve

Original artwork by Barbara Downs, The Muse, Mixed-Media on Canvas

The Muse, Mixed-Media on Canvas, 108″x72″, 2013

With Open Studios a month away, this is probably the last of the big paintings that I will complete for the time being.  This painting went through the most drastic changes of any of this series. It hung on my wall for several months in a very different iteration, taking up space, and drawing my attention to it whenever I looked up. I’m calling it done after these most recent modifications because any additional work risks losing the immediacy that I’m after. This one really is a drawing, when it comes right down to it, even though it’s done with paint and mixed-media.

I’m posting this taken-with-my-phone photo because, when I downloaded the photo, I was so surprised to see how the power cord at the lower right corner echoes the lines in the figure.  That’s the sort of surprise I enjoy!

I also like the bit of blue from the nitrile glove on the floor, which leads me to believe that I should incorporate a bit of blue into my limited palette in the next paintings.

I promise to post better photos of all of these paintings after R.R. Jones pays me a visit tomorrow, to shoot all twelve of these large paintings, one after another after another.

open studios at mission industrial studios

I am fortunate to be working in a warehouse complex with a wonderful group of artists and craftspersons.  This year, we have eleven artists participating in the Santa Cruz County Open Studios, showing a wide variety of artwork. We’ll all be open on October 5 and 6, and I hope you can visit us!

Barbara Downs announcement for Open Studios 2013 exhibition

contemplate this

I now have these twelve of large-scale paintings, all completed over the last year.  They all are acrylic/mixed-media on unstretched canvas, approximately 6’x9′.

There’s quite a bit going on with these paintings for me, though I find them deceptively simple in appearance. In fact, that simplicity was one of my initial thoughts about them: a seemingly straightforward and unassuming figure at a large scale.  As a reminder of that scale, here they are with my usual yellow ladder as a scale reference.


It’s no accident that the figures are in quiet, inward-turned, contemplative poses. These paintings are adamantly not about the outward focus of social media (and yet, here I am), social art-making, or community. I am thinking about inward focus and contemplation, but on a heroic scale.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. I like the individual, compacted, inward-turned figures because they hold a sculptural interest for me. I am enjoying the bluntness of the visual message.

And there’s also the fact that these are drawing-based.  That’s why they’re on unstretched canvas, hanging flat against the wall like a piece of paper or parchment. That’s why they use a drawing language, that of line defining form. The last painting, the one on the right in the studio shot, was one in which I was exploring this idea more explicitly and more singularly, in a scale that relates to a paintbrush rather than a piece of charcoal. This particular piece is not quite finished but it’s close, very close.

size matters

Original Artwork by Barbara Downs, The Reverie and Balance, Acrylic/Mixed-Media on Unstretched Canvas

Left: The Reverie, Right: Balance, Both are approximately 6’x9′, Acrylic/Mixed-Media on Unstretched Canvas, 2013

I have many thoughts about my current series of large-scale paintings, but I’m going to limit this post to the topic of mark-making as it relates to scale.

Original artwork by Barbara Downs, In Memory of Childhood #11, Encaustic/Oil on Panel

In Memory of Childhood #11, Encaustic/Oil on Panel, 6″ x 6″, 2013

I started thinking about this perhaps a year ago, while I was working with small encaustics but considering doing some large-scale paintings. I liked the broad swath of brushstroke I was getting using a large-ish brush on very small panels, like this 6″x6″ piece to the right. I wanted to preserve that mark as I moved to 6‘x9’ canvases.

I knew that on a large canvas this would require a BIG brush, so I picked up a paint roller instead. The humor in this doesn’t escape me… I do not enjoy house painting, yet here I was, using paint rollers on (a canvas stapled to) the wall. It felt familiar, though misplaced.

Once I started, though, there was no question I’d made the right decision.  It worked, I liked both the process and the results, and I had other questions to ponder anyway, like where the series was going.

But the proportional scale of those roller strokes makes for an interesting photography conundrum: it’s almost impossible to infer the size of the painting from a cropped photo. Are they 16”x20” or are they 72”x108″?  Size matters!

Here is the latest painting, in a conventionally-cropped photo. Compare it to the photo at the beginning of this post, where you can clearly deduce the size of the painting.

Original artwork by Barbara Downs, The Reverie, Acrylic/Mixed-Media on Unstretched Canvas

The Reverie, Acrylic/Mixed-Media on Unstretched Canvas (hung directly on wall with nails though grommets), 106″ x 68″, 2013

If I wait to photograph until I install grommets for hanging, the viewer will have a size reference, sort of. People know what size grommets are, but, then again, there are small grommets and there are large ones! For the record, these are similar to the grommets you might find on a store-bought tarp.

Original artwork by Barbara Downs, Protection Mode, Acrylic/Mixed-Media on Unstretched Canvas (hung directly on wall with nails though grommets)

Protection Mode, Acrylic/Mixed-Media on Unstretched Canvas (hung directly on wall with nails though grommets), 106″ x 72″, 2012

the photo shoot

I love to photograph my photographer, r.r. jones, at work. He came to my studio last week to shoot a few new large paintings, and at the same time my neighbor Jamie Abbott borrowed my wall to photograph one of his sculptures.

Here are Ron and Jamie with Jamie’s sculpture on the wall:

R.R. Jones photographing the work of Jamie Abbott in the studio of Barbara Downs

And here’s one of the new photos he shot for me:

Original artwork by Barbara Downs, Protection Mode, Acrylic/Mixed-Media on Unstretched Canvas

Protection Mode, Acrylic/Mixed-Media on Unstretched Canvas (hung directly on wall with nails though grommets), 106″ x 72″, 2012

I’ve previously photographed this painting but I’ve added the grommets since that time. This piece is on unstretched canvas and is nailed to the wall through the grommets. I don’t want to stretch these pieces because, even though they are primarily done with paint, I think of them equally as drawings. So they stay flat against the wall, like a drawing pinned in place.

in the studio now

Here’s what I’m up to in the studio right now: big paintings, more of which can be seen here.

This new one, still in progress, is acrylic and chalk on unstretched canvas, and is approximately 9’x6′.  The ladder in the photo shows the scale, which is important to the piece.  I’m thinking about the inward-turned figure in contrast to larger-than-life scale.

Original artwork by Barbara Downs, large-scale painting on tarp

the drawing salon

I’ve blogged in the past about working collaboratively with Claire Thorson.  We’ve done many drawings together as well as some paintings, working from the model.

We’re very excited to be showing two of our collaborative drawings at an upcoming show at the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  You can see one of them on their website: just click on the screenshot below… (and then come to the show!)

Barbara Downs announcement for The Drawing Salon exhibition

The Drawing Salon

January 20th – March 10th, 2013
Reception: Sunday, February 10th, 3-5PM
Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery
Cowell College, UCSC

Here’s our statement for the show:

In addition to the work we do individually, we have been working collaboratively for some years now. In the beginning, we worked alternately on pieces, as many collaborators do, but now we work on the same piece together, at the same time, side by side.

There are no rules: decisions or marks made by one person may be—and often are—immediately altered or erased by the other.  In a fluid and dynamic process, we change sides, step back to look, call to each other to correct an area whose fault can only be seen from a distance, try to protect a favorite line or tonal area and then most likely let it go.

Sometimes we agree.  Sometimes we struggle.  We may pursue dissimilar directions, wrestle with each other through the charcoal, chalk and paint.  Working together may trigger a conflict of interest—drawing is, after all, a very personal endeavor.

But in spite of or because of the intensity we share, a drawing comes together from our combined work at the easel. And the endpoint of the drawing, while often surprising, is almost always mutually understood.  Our most successful drawings blend our two visions seamlessly, and though we may recognize a mark or a passage that belongs to one or the other, the overall piece is something neither of us would have arrived at on our own.

By working together and embracing the unpredictable outcomes, the possibilities of making an image are somehow multiplied by more than a factor of two.  The collaborative process opens new vistas and directions that each of us can take to our own work, and the work we do together stands on its own accord. — Claire Thorson and Barbara Downs

sleight of hand

I’ve grown rather fond of this suite of ten small encaustic pieces that I’ve just completed. Each is 6″x6″, encaustic on panel.  I delivered them today to this show:

Sleight of Hand
Pajaro Valley Arts Council Gallery
January 16 – February 17, 2013
Reception: January 20, 2-4pm