My paintings reveal the deeply felt, intrinsic beauty of my subjects.
To achieve this, I take an unabashed sensual approach to describing not only the figure, but landscape and still life as well. It is an approach informed mightily by the sense of touch, where volume and density are more keenly understood than through the eye alone.
I have always delighted in the folds and textures of the landscape, the silk of flesh, the weighty tug of a smooth stone in my hand. The traditional working methods I’ve adopted communicate this fascination, delight, and visual richness best. My challenge is to charge the canvas with the essential sensate information whereby the viewer is moved to re-experience my visual and emotional internalization of the subject.
While my paintings tend to evoke a classical order and at times project a sense of stillness or quietude, there is an ever present undercurrent of longing, desire, and melancholy that evinces the great effort I invest in the formation and execution of each and every work.
I take a distinctly hands-on approach to creating my picture surface. Grinding pigments for hand toning paper or laying a colored ground on canvas offers me the greatest level of artistic control and results in endlessly exciting surface variations that give my pictures vitality and core visual interest. I am also occupied as I paint with the formal relationships developing within my painting, reconciling the representational nature of my style with the broader constructs of picture plane design, composition, and abstraction.
As my work progressed over the years, I developed a pronounced affinity for indirect painting methods, I’ve exhibited a strong drift to Tonalism, and I have a unending fondness for employing limited color palettes and earth tones. I suspect I’ve been predisposed to these aspects all my life. As a child, while my young classmates were painting in primary color schemes, I was already gravitating towards; the ochres, the burnt siennas, the red-orange and olive-green admixtures. There were other precursors…
I grew up on Long Island in the 1960s. On schooldays, I would walk to the primary school I attended. Occasionally, in early autumn, a dense fog would settle in the night before, and I’d make the morning walk through a gray earth-bound cloud.
I loved those mornings most of all. The commonplace grid work of streets were infused with mystery, and tinged with a child’s sense of foreboding. In the shimmering mist, the sprawl of the open landscape was subtly collapsed into a uniquely personal and intimate space. Automobiles, objects, and people materialized from and then dissolved into vapor like specters. I reveled in the thought that the world at large was invisible to me, and I too was equally invisible to others.
The fog transformed all. The brute suburban architecture and its garish colorations were cultivated by interleaving shades of gray. The whole unruly landscape was reduced to harmonious pattern and primary form.
I have never forgotten those mornings - the childhood fantasies and daydreams they inspired, the excitement that those walks induced and the palpable sensation of connectedness I felt to the ‘here and now’ – a sense of place.
Those early elemental experiences still resonate in my paintings today.
I have also been strongly influenced by the following artists; Piero della Francesca, Lucca Signorelli, Donatello, George Inness, Edwin Dickinson, Jack Levine, Walter Murch, and Paul Cadmus - who have shaped and continue to mold my artistic vision. I especially owe a debt of gratitude to the late artist and teacher Jack Henderson whose aesthetic imprint on me cannot be overstated.
As a general method of working on the formal landscapes and extended studio paintings, I will start by applying several layers of diluted Lead White to a pre-primed stretched linen canvas. When this rich, dense foundation is completely dry, a semi-transparent layer of ground color is applied over the face of the canvas, and that layer too is left to dry completely. The choice of ground color is dictated by the motif or the overall emotional mood that I wish to convey in the finished painting. A detailed drawing is completed on top of the colored ground.
The next few preliminary sessions are spent blocking in the underpainting which serves to approximate local color and tone of the subject while still allowing the unifying ground color of the canvas to show through. From this point on, the painting process proceeds layer by layer as the surface is built up through the application of films of transparent and semi-transparent color. This process depending on the size and complexity of the painting can take anywhere from a several weeks to many months to complete.
These optical mixtures that occur through the interaction of ground color and layers of semi-transparent paint film create the kinds of luminous visual effects and rich passages of color in my work that, I feel, cannot be arrived at through other more direct painting methods. I have adapted select aspects of traditional painting techniques, because the classical approach most clearly aligns with my aesthetic sensibilities, my detailed methods of working, and my creative approach to picture making.
As a counterpoint to the formal studio paintings, I also work in a direct mode akin to master painter Edwin Dickinson’s premier coup landscapes. Each painting in this cycle is executed in one on-site session – with the finished work usually taking no more than two to five hours to complete. The outcome is not - as you might expect - ‘a generalized sketch’, but rather a rapid extemporaneous distillation of the core aspects of the subject. This process is the painterly equivalent of making espresso, in which the essence of the coffee bean is extracted in a compressed and rapid process. The premier coup approach in its compact and highly concentrated technique aims to extract the spirit and essential character of the subject.
These paintings are usually executed on a smaller panel or canvas, and paint is applied directly with a brush or pallet knife without the necessity of a preliminary drawing. I may also additionally incise details into the wet paint with a brush handle or stylus. A specific painting may deal with the subject in total or in fragmentary form which can leave portions of the primed canvas remaining as an integral part of the finished work.
Each of these painting approaches which I embrace reinforces the other. In working paint in these contrasting ways, I feel I am offered the opportunity to draw on distinctly different creative energies, and resolve a spectrum of aesthetic challenges that ultimately inform and invigorate my future work.
Craig A. Marta