by Leslie Caylin Spear
The final thesis I have completed consists of twelve paintings that capture the movement of the ocean. Each painting is made using a wax encaustics (beeswax and damar resin mixture) with oil paints, iridescent and opaque oil pastels, and found beach objects such as driftwood, seashells, and sea glass on gessoed(with rabbit skin glue and marble dust) wooden panels. The purpose of this investigation is to gain a greater understanding of how to find balance within the movement of nature, specifically the ocean. My goal is to convey the feeling of serenity I find when completely surrounded by nature. This is a physical, mental, and spiritual place of healing for me, much like I find while painting and drawing. This body of work brings together two parts of my life – painting and surfing - that have led to positive growth and good health. “Ocean Movement” conveys my struggle to find peace in a seemingly chaotic world. It is my intention to help others cope with obstacles of life.
My perspective on life is unique having been born missing my right leg. I have overcome my disability by finding strength in the ocean and peace through making art. Painting and surfing allow me to escape the physical and mental imbalance of living life with one leg. Each work in this thesis serves as a record of my journey to find healing. The compositions focus around the center of the wave, conveying a sense of calm in the eye of the “storm” of living. The circular compositions also refer to the cycle of life.
While working with wax encaustics and mixed media oil paintings I have discovered joy in the freedom of using new and inventive media. It has taught me the value of experimentation while keeping the work fresh and exciting to me. Wax encaustics convey the watery layers of the ocean by allowing me to control the transparency of the colors depending on how much pigment is added. It lifts the oil paint, iridescent pastels, and found objects to the surface, much like the sea holds light and reflections of clouds from the sky. Wax encaustics also connect me with ancient history. It has survived much longer than oil painting on canvas. Creating a lasting painting with recognizable symbols is an important aspect of my work, just as ancient works have lasted thousands of years.
I find a language for self expression with a gestural juxtaposition of shapes, colors, lines, and values. Working in abstract expressionism allows me to portray the ocean in ways that go beyond a realistic image. Painting expressively accentuates the motion of the lines and forms that emerge from the wave. Communicating emotions through colors, shapes, and movement releases my blocked energy, and healing occurs.
The scale of my work ranges from small to large wooden panels and driftwood. Small paintings are often studies for large ones. Larger paintings allow me to magnify the feeling of each wave I have experienced. I work quickly, so it essential for me to have a variety of projects to work on in order to keep my interest. Circular rhythm in the brushstrokes emanate through each piece. The use of the spiral forms in my work is essential in conveying the feeling of a wave.
PROCESS AND MEDIA
My mind is clear of everyday chatter and the distractions of life when I start a new painting, similar to my state of mind while trying to catch a wave. Trust in my intuition is essential in every step of my process. Ultimately, the brushstrokes are formed by my emotions in the moment. Therefore I am often unaware of exactly what I feel until after the painting is complete. The painting itself becomes a tangible representation of my present emotional perspective. In the studio I recreate the experience of surfing by reliving it through the movement of the paint. The gestural strokes seem random at first,but in time each stroke informs the next in building the complex and expressive layers of the sea. It is a challenge to find balance even in my studio. Perfect spirals that exist in nature inspire the stability I need to make a composition work. Painting such perfection is only possible for me when I connect with emotions through the movement of my body.
Onto a stark white gessoed panel I make an under-painting. These initial lines form the skeleton of the wave and the body of the reef. Quick circular marks are made out of neutral earth tones thinned with mineral spirits. As wax encaustics is layered onto the panel brushstrokes take on forms of animals or parts of land and seascapes. Rags and cheesecloth are used to wipe away or blend areas of oil paint. The fusing of each wax layer with a heat gun allows me some semblance of control. The feeling does not last long as the colors meet one another in a sporadic fluid form. Once the wax cools I use ceramic carving tools to make intaglio(incising a surface and filling with oil based ink in this case) marks that form small dark lines against the larger ones. I make choices about where to leave a mark according to the lights and darks of the composition in previous layers. Opaque glazes of oil paint are added to reveal or hide details of each wave. The glazes are made using a mixture of linseed oil, stand oil, and mineral spirits representing the reflections of the sky on the water
and the reef sparkling below. The forms are very loose and fluid, moving across the canvas much like waves. After the final layers are in place I leave it. I then move on to other paintings in order to allow revision.
The spiraled placement of colors and values determines the composition. The movement is inspired by the shape of a wave. Illumination comes from either within the subject or around it, depending on the time of the particular moment I am depicting. The direction of the light also depends on the type of weather, which helps me to convey the mood of the painting. I paint the seascape how I see the actual physical structures of the environment. First I see the earth and sky, and then water forms. From water I paint the images of life such as plants and animal forms. I explore the elements of nature to create a believable yet abstracted space.
Mixed media such as printmaking and wax encaustics pushes my work into a third dimension. Wax encaustics give me translucent and three-dimensional layers without using the harsh chemicals of resin and fiberglass that I had used in mixed media work prior to my time at the Academy of Art University. It also enables me to incorporate flotsam and jetsam objects into my paintings. When I am at the beach I collect shells, driftwood, glass, and any trash I find along the way. Both of my grandmothers are avid beach combers as well so I was inspired early on. Walking on my crutches along the shoreline is also part of my training for surfing and search for peace, especially if the waves are too big for me to surf. In the studio I carefully adorn my paintings with treasures that pay homage to the ocean. The objects are placed onto the panel either randomly or in a linear pattern. Sea glass and shells create texture in the work that I cannot get with wax or paint alone. My control is limited by the shadows that are cast and the light that is reflected from each object. Using souvenirs from the beach in these paintings is also a way for me to preserve and share my ocean experiences.
The intricacies of the waves in my body of work (seafloor, conditions, swell height and direction) are based on my own experiences. The sand that draws into a barrel, the creatures that move about the ocean and sky, and even the clouds overhead that form as the waves crash into foamy oblivion are all a part of my ocean experience. In the space of a wave there is silence as every sound is drowned out by the echo of the liquid cylindrical force crashing onto the moving water below it.
Carving into the surface of the wax in these paintings is much like the edge of a board planing into the side of a wave as it moves down the beach. It is hard to explain in words the feeling of catching a perfect head high wave and pulling into the center where all is still amongst great forces of water that hit the land. However, it is my intention to express such an indescribable feeling in my art. The energy of the wave moves perfectly around and with me. Time stands still for a while. Vision is softened as instincts take control. Relaxing, trusting coordination, and reacting quickly enable control in such a powerful place. The profound reverence that I have for nature is a direct result from the times I have been humbled by the power of the ocean.
In order to heal it has been essential for me to understand the source of my pain. I have learned that, in order to heal completely, I must replace suffering with positivity and love. Comfort in the ocean and the expression of emotion through painting has filled the void of never developing a limb. The space I have created in this work is very womblike, referencing the place where the initial injury to my leg occurred. I paint to remember the experience of healing and to share it with others.
CHALLENGES AND LESSONS
Since Mid Point Review my work has evolved in many ways. I learned more about the medium of wax encaustic to create images of the ocean in my work. I developed techniques that allowed me to express the movement of the ocean. I gained a better understanding of how the creation and position of depth in a composition can draw the viewer in. When I am lost in my work I have great success. The ease of my intuitive process gives me confidence in the strength of my thesis. The paintings have evolved from a loose idea of my message into a clear statement about my connection with the ocean. The body of work is therefore no longer reliant on the extraneous writing from my Mid Point Review about the ancient information that I collected on caves and mermaids.
At times I was frustrated by the values of of my brushstrokes getting lost in the composition. Layers of lines in a tropical rainbow spectrum of color often obscures the value contrast. The best way for me to solve this was to set a painting aside. I went back into the painting when I was able to identify the problems, usually adding more dramatic darks and lights to create depth. Choosing a limited palette also helped to create an interesting value pattern.
The quick nature of the hardening time of melted wax leaves only a brief moment to place a mark. This morphing nature of the wax forced me to rely on my artistic instincts when placing a mark. The black and white ink drawings I made beforehand assisted me in making essential intuitive choices about the compositions of the wax encaustic paintings. To make a painting that is balanced while at the same time portrays the disorganization of the world below crashing waves is a challenge. The space beneath a wave can be very chaotic with colors and values swirling about in different directions. Translating the feeling of surfing onto a panel blurs the contrast between values and colors. The intuitive process I use keeps harmony
in all the elements of a painting.
It has been a struggle for me to find peace and balance in life in general because of my disability. Staying in the present moment has helped me to live happily. The ocean is the place where obstacles are real for everyone. I use the lessons of the ocean to interpret life. Sometimes after a wave pushes me underwater, I am quickly released to the surface. Other times it is a challenge to get one breath to survive the next wave. Despite water moving in all directions, I have learned to go with the flow of the currents as I calmly find the surface. This a way to gain control in chaotic situations. Knowing when to let go while persevering has given me strength many times in the ocean and in this body of work.
I have been encouraged during my M.F.A. studies to find my voice. I believe that I have had it all along, but it was not until I delved into my thesis that I found a confident voice for my paintings about my ocean experience. I have observed relationships between the intricate parts of the ocean that have taught me about the delicate balance of life and the importance of marine conservation. I have had a tremendous amount of encouragement along the way to be myself in my work, which has helped me to share my journey of healing with others in a positive way. I continue to learn that anything is possible with great vision and hard work. In creating this body of work I have learned the importance of making connections in life and painting. Melding my passions for art and surfing has taught me to stay in the present moment and take advantage of each moment of the day as if it were my last.