The Lemon Branches

MESSER_Lemon Branches_LG

For the third year in a row the school year has ended in a blur of events, travel, scramble-scramble-scrambling to finish paintings, shows, trying to ignore distractingly good weather and not getting nearly enough sleep. There’s so much about Third Year I want to share with you and have record of before immersing in summer work and moving onto my final year in the atelier. I’ll start here with Lemon Branches. Mentally this is my favorite kind of post to write where I walk through the experience of working on a longer painting project. I have to verbalize for the first time the process, the struggles and the learning.

One of the atelier assistant teachers jokes that I have become a “plant major.” As in, I’ve decided only to paint plants. Not necessarily so, but also not not true. The painting subjects I love are portraits, landscapes, and florals. Better yet, portraits in landscapes. So as we approached the color theory curriculum of third year, we were asked to find high chroma subjects to paint. When I search my daily environments, the high chroma objects I find truly inspiring happen to be organic. Am I trying to slip landscape elements into a still life painting? Probably. Was I escaping the Seattle winter into a Roman lemon palazzo of my own making? Definitely.

MESSER_Lemon Branches_Study

The final painting ended up being 13 x 26″ but I started with a smaller study to help prepare my composition and palette. Typically studies are quite small and brief but this one was 10 x 20 in”, so truly an alla prima painting in its own right. I worked on it for several days, it was too fun to stop. I used this study as a map of the many design and composition decisions I’d already worked out and it helped me focus on what I initially found beautiful about this subject.

After I had completed the final painting, my dear friend Bonny purchased the study and I had the opportunity to deliver it to her in person when I traveled to Atlanta for the Portrait Society of America conference. I hopped over to New Orleans where Bonny and I got to hug for the first time in two years and I got to cry over meeting her fierce little-lion toddler Zelda. It was really cool to frame and deliver a painting to an old friend.

MESSER_Lemon Branches_Framed Study

Before letting go of the study, I needed it to finish the painting. I fixed it to my easel and started on the drawing. I wanted to make the drawing as carefully observed as possible. When drawing organic forms there’s a funny reasoning you go through. On the one hand, no one will know if you’re not quite as accurate because unlike human anatomy, with which we’re naturally very familiar, or geometric human-made objects, organic shapes can be anything in nature. On the other hand, to achieve a truly organic quality in a drawing, nothing can be made up. After all, what is more organic than nature? Certainly not our imaginations which tend to idealize forms. If we get lazy in our observation, the rhythm of leaves becomes too predictable, the shapes of the fruit too regular.

Messer_Lemon Branches_Drawing

Like the study, an underpainting provides a map to which you can orient your final painting. There are several different ways to make an underpainting — I’ve posted grayscale grisaille underpaintings before, thin color washes and wipeout underpaintings like the one I made below. I chose a simple wipeout because I knew I wanted to surround the bright yellow lemons with dark cools of blue and green and a wipeout is a great way to note this contrast. After I transferred the drawing to linen canvas I covered it with raw umber and wiped out the light forms with a paint rag.

Messer_Lemon Branches_Wipeout

From there I put in the background elements and started with a first pass of the lemons and leaves.

MESSER_Lemon Branches_Process

The image at the top of the post is the final painting and below you can see it framed. I thought I had asked my framers (the awesome folks at Jayeness Moulding here in Seattle) for the same frame I they cut for the smaller study. But it turns out I wrote down the SKU number for a different black and gold frame. In the fame shop all you see is wall-to-wall corners of moulding. I tend to go simple with a thin gold inner border for extra luminosity. I never would have chosen this frame had I not seen it cut and on the painting, and I never would have seen it on the painting if I hadn’t made this mistake. But art life tends to yield many accidents, some of them happy. After the end-of-year show another dear friend, Maria, bought this painting and we both love the frame. She’ll be taking the painting with her when she moves to Shanghai this August. Seems like I’ll have to go visit them both.

MESSER_Lemon Branches_framed