“I was fortunate to be able to spend a couple of months last fall, in the winter and spring drawing inside the building and trying to figure out the specific view that I would paint as the commission for MASS MoCA for the new space. I am honored to be the only artist commission for the new building which opens Memorial Day weekend 2017. I was able to bring my sketchbook and pencils and had to dress in layers because it was really cold there with no heat but it was a great time to draw and observe the space uninterrupted. I left a bit dusty – but loved being the only person in the building as I was able to go all through it up-and-down on the various floors and really get a sense of the history and the space/feel of the place. Here are some of the preliminary drawings.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time looking in thinking about the space, it’s the same way I approached my NASA work when I was commissioned by NASA to paint four paintings for their collection. I spent half a year just researching space and the international space station (including working with the director of the project) so that I would have an informed way of seeing before I began the project.
I’ve visited MASS MoCA often over the past year. One of the challenges of this museum commission is how to create a work of art in watercolor to this very large size, the final image will be 8’ x 16’. (I’ve contacted curators at MOMA and The National Gallery of Art and they aren’t aware of a watercolor painting this magnitude.) My first challenge was to find very large watercolor paper. I visited the art stores in New York City, called most of the well-known art supply stores in the U.S. and followed up with their leads to the various companies that produce paper in England, Spain, Italy and even Japan. I was sent samples to try out and narrowed it down to a couple of options that possibly could be large enough.”
“I’ve had many conversations about how to actually produce this painting. The concept of perhaps the largest watercolor in the world 8’ x 15’ or maybe the largest painted by a living female artist sounds exciting but the behind the scenes process to even get to the beginning point was a zigzag of different trials and errors. (I do want to thank Frank Kelly, Deputy Director at the National Gallery of Art, Molly Donovan, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Art and Olga Visa, Director of the Walker Art Center for their initial help in formulating the project). I visited the Art Fairs (Art Basel, Art Show, Armory Show) to get ideas and see framing options. I am on the board of the Colonial Williamsburg Museums and they were very helpful directing me to appropriate curators who might help with paper questions, archival questions and framing (thanks to Pam Young in the paper department and Director Ron Hurst). Leslie Paisley at the Williamstown Conservation Lab was also helpful with initial paper questions. Joe Thompson, Director of MASS MoCA helped with initial concepts and placement as we looked at the plans for the then future museum renovation of Building 6 and where a painting of that size might fit in.”
“I spent all fall thinking about the project and doing studies of the space. I visited the space through out the year doing studies as the work developed. I worked first on pencil studies to be sure that I had the architecture accurate and to work out the light and darks of the space as well as the overall composition. A lot of time has been spent on the initial concept and process as the final large size is so enormous that I’d rather address the problems that might arise at the beginning. My work is often about memory and much is done on site/plein air but I make changes, move things around and create a very different interpretation and painting of what the subject might be. In this case the architecture needed to be accurate and reminded me of my studies with Lane Faison at Williams College. Lane was one of the deans of the Williams Art Mafia as well as a Monument Man (which is where I think he developed his love of Baroque and Rococco). My thesis was to be the first chapter of his book on Southern German Baroque and Rococo Art and Architecture and I spent many afternoons with Lane pouring over architectural drawings and interior photos to examine space. Because of Lane I continued my studies on a Fulbright Scholarship examining, drawing and looking at art and architecture in Europe. Interestingly, it was Lane who first brought me to see MASS MoCA. He wanted me to see the space, he was so excited about it. I remember going through the building with him before it opened so it is a nice circle to come back and now I paint a monumental painting of the new space. It has a very personal connection for me.
I also spent ten years doing artwork for The New Yorker, many with architectural themes as I always had my sketchbook while traveling. When I lived in New York City, I would go out and sit on a corner and draw. The MASS MoCA space, however, was a different type of line- not a whimsical, energy filled line but the lines of a strong architectural space with a history and connection to the community.”
Below is a concise quote from MASS MoCA that aptly summarizes my project for the museum:
“Barbara’s painting will be monumental by any standard, but for a watercolor on paper – perhaps the most unforgiving combination of any painterly media — the undertaking is truly breathtaking. Conceived as an interior portrait of MASS MoCA’s 120,000 square foot Building 6, the image will depict part of the historic mill in its raw, un-renovated state, just prior to the commencement of the construction work now underway, which will create long term exhibition galleries for the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Jenny Holzer, James Turrell, Laurie Anderson, and Louise Bourgeoise, among others.
Besides being an extremely large scale rendering of an extremely large and beautifully light-filled space, Barbara’s work is unique in other ways too. Deeply rooted in the traditional craft and practice of watercolor, the object will be a technical tour de force, requiring specially made papers, mounts and frames.”
Something not mentioned in MASS MoCA’s commission description of my painting is that this very large project is all done by hand, it is not mass produced or fabricated by somebody else as so much art is created today, but from the beginning drawings to the final painting, it is all done by my hand. As I’ve written in a previous post, I initially began with small studies working out the composition and value and, in this commission, choosing which view I would paint of the vast unrenovated space. I walked around the floors exploring different options and decided which section would make the most interesting painting. I like to work as much on site as possible, so after the pencil drawings (and I did many of them) I then moved to color studies. They began small as I was unsure of the saturation of the color and then I moved to larger studies. The last study is 32” x 40” which is tacked up on the wall as a reference for the final painting. I also made sure that I ordered the same watercolor paper that I was using for the final piece and tried working on the different weights as each piece has unique properties which affect the final outcome. Here are some of the studies which I worked out for most of Fall 2016.
After I had done all the research, studies and ordered the paper, the next step was to figure out where I would execute such a monumental watercolor, a ‘tour de force’ as MASS MoCA Director Joe Thompson referred to it. Unfortunately, the large panels were 2 inches too large to fit through my studio windows (I had thought we could hoist them up to the top floor studio and through the windows) but I was fortunate to find a great location close by, a very large room in a local building which could easily accommodate the painting structures setup and with good light. I wanted the light to be as close to the MASS MoCA location as possible, the front wall of the museum’s new wing with two stories of windows and light so that the colors would be consistent. This could be different if the light source was dramatically different.
Much time was spent figuring out how to actually paint the painting, which included incorporating the build supports so that I would have access to the painting.
We had to figure out how to build the supports so that I would be able to paint the watercolor without the water-based paint dripping down the front of the painting, which would happen with a perpendicular surface. It took a bit of engineering to figure out how to get the painting perpendicular as possible, and with a bit of a lean, but not too much lean so I could still paint standing on the ladder and scaffolding. The supports needed to be flush and exact as there are many columns, windows and architectural details in the painting and I wanted to lines that were too slanted.
My invaluable assistant carried the awkward and heavy panels (very cautiously) from my studio to the ‘replacement’ studio and assembled the support structure. As through this whole process so far I have had a wonderful support team. The scaffolding arrived, ladders were purchased and everything was set for the initial pencil drawing on paper.
The next challenge was how to transfer my preliminary drawings onto the very large surface. I had done many pencil studies and watercolor studies so I had an idea what the final painting would look like, but they had all been worked out on a much smaller scale. It was daunting to draw on such a large scale and I needed enough space so that I could step back and view the drawing in progress for final corrections and overall development. I had to make sure that, as it was architectural, the columns were straight and that both the vertical and horizontal lines of the building were somewhat straight (although there was sagging). I had no idea how long the pencil drawing would take, and, as it turned out, it took a very long time. I had ordered an extra long straight edge ruler and then rigged one on my own which came in handy to make sure everything matched up. It took me well over a month to finish the drawing– making sure that all the lines were correctly drawn. I also have to be very cautious with watercolor paper because any damage to the surface of the paper, for example excessive erasing, will affect the finished watercolor as the pigment will puddle in the damaged surface.
As I’ve written, I’d spent a lot of time thinking about how to execute the painting, which included what supplies I would need to augment what I already have. I visited the art stores in New York City, looking at art catalogs online and researching the brushes that would be most appropriate to use for the painting. As there is so much surface space, if I used my smaller watercolor brushes the painting would take forever. There are different brushes used for oils than watercolors. I paint in both mediums so I have quite a collection of brushes in my studio, but none were appropriate. I settled on some large Japanese brushes and ordered new brushes that I had never used before, hoping that they would prove to be good and for me, easy to handle. With larger brushes came the need to find a larger mixing space as well as larger buckets for water and more paint. I would need a ladder, a stepstool and some sort of scaffolding so that I could get up high on the painting to paint. From the start, this was all about exploring uncharted territory but perhaps the most important thing to remember was that I really couldn’t make a mistake – which is the scary part about watercolor.