One never knows where an idea for a painting will come from, but I get new ideas all the time. Sometimes I’ll comb through an art book in my library for inspiration. This exercise always gets my imagination flowing. When I glance through a catalog or monograph on a particular artist, I will sometimes come across an image that sparks an idea for a new painting.
Here’s a painting by the 19th Century painter Frederic Edwin Church, titled “The Vale of St. Thomas, Jamaica”, dated 1867. The painting shows a rainstorm passing across a lush tropical river valley. I really like the magical quality of the light in this piece.
Upon seeing this image, I decided to reinterpret Church’s painting in my own visual language as a negative commentary on modern capitalism. Instead of rolling hills of lush tropical vegetation, I would paint a landscape covered with massive piles of automobiles and other consumer goods. The winding river would become a freeway full of traffic, and the palm trees would become billboards.
As I envisioned using a lot of warm golden colors in my final painting, I chose a violet color for my underpainting. I did this because, when a complimentary color in an underpainting is allowed to show through, the overall painting feels more vibrant.
I steadily added more color and details to my painting. I also made some minor modifications to the composition. For example, I didn’t like my original placement for the billboard in the lower right corner, so I repainted it larger, with a bit more foreshortening.
I chose to have the billboards in my painting borrow their design identity from major brands like Walmart, IKEA, Old Navy, Goodyear, Mobil, and Home Depot. However I changed all the brand names to the word “MORE”. I liked how enigmatic this seemed when repeated this way, becoming a quasi-subliminal mantra. I’ve been using this concept in a number of my recent paintings.
Owing to the dark mood of my painting, I decided to call it “The Vale of Sorrows”. This title was derived from the Church painting that inspired me. Although I don’t believe I captured the same magical quality of light and details as found in his painting, I’m fairly happy with my result. From a distance the painting appears quite intricate, but seen up close, you discover it is actually painted rather loosely.
I’ve now begun work on an even larger version of this concept. The new painting will be a triptych stretching 12 feet across and will feature a broad horizontal landscape full of freeways weaving around piles of consumer goods surmounted by a forest of billboards. Here’s a peek of this work in progress.