by Nathan Mellott
Plant the cotton. Harvest. Manufacture Thread. Weave. Fell a tree. Plane lumber. Assemble frame. Stretch canvas. Mine limestone. Pulverize. Purchase rabbits. Slaughter. Chemically treat and clarify fats. Blend with minerals. Apply gesso. Seal. Dry. Receive Commission.
Professional in the US State Department requests oil painting in the theme of Washington DC’s gifted Japanese cherry trees, while in blossom.
How is this interesting—trees in blossom—do I keep within expectations that the composition is beautiful as the said blooming that inspired the commission. I will tell you that I won’t make something that bores me during the process of its execution. I assume my first decision, was the composition of movement, the bones and perspective. Since I’ve done a realist painting of blossoms before, this time I wouldn’t; since I’d done a narrative in the location before, I wouldn’t do so again. I haven’t addressed this yet in a flat, lithographic manner—like Hiroshige or Hokusai or print masters of the theater and native landscape—a nod to Japanese style. I won’t be making a print, this is a painting all the way, I hesitate at mechanizing my work. Paint on a surface seems more corporeal and unique.
Here are the branches of the tree. Here is the horizon. Here is the plane of the mid-ground and the edge of the basin to the promenade. I employ straight edges to keep these lines true. The canvas has a primer wash of mid-toned ochre red. I mix paint for the color of cherry blossoms not in the direct light of my non-literal world. Every flower is an ambient of this color, then lighter values mold their shape in (sun)light, and substantial shadows cast in the tree will be treated differently; I want to color it as a sharp contrast to things illuminated by passive, reflected light. The choice to have flattened these places with a turquoise, was a fortunate find, and a way I could escape from an (non-complementary) monochromatic piece. Now, where hues typically lose strength (shade), I could smile and let it compete counter-punctually with the brightness of sunlit flowers. Next. So with the organic light distribution of the tree, I would retain their movement with stylized, designed representations of the mid and background (the lawn, sidewalk, water and sky); that they wouldn’t compete with the central focus of the picture but could, given due inspection, the reward of detail. The flat clouds were inserted as they are to provide the noticeable stepping stone of difference between what is handled with light and what is handled with line.
As it happened, most people around me during the process of the painting resisted the flatness of the clouds, but I felt I could get away with it being accurate (and transitionally consistent for organic to inorganic) with the detail of unlit clouds in a dusk/dawn setting. I didn’t want to busy the painting and compete with the trees. After months had passed, the painting was complete; the clouds were rewarded with enthusiastic converts - unprovoked. That is one of the happiest particulars to being a painter—time has passed and thought has been given to your work without knowing, and then it is shared.