By Dianne Massey Dunbar
Having always wanted to be an artist, I assumed I would paint landscapes, which is what I was taught, what I knew, and where I thought my passion was.
It would be years before my dream of being an artist would be realized, and surprisingly my journey would take me away from landscapes to an entirely different focus. That focus, as I call it, is “painting the ordinary.”
A Little Background
I am a Denver native who began oil painting at the age of seven. As the story goes, an elementary school teacher told my parents that I showed unusual talent in art.
My parents searched for an art teacher, but few art teachers wanted to work with a child so young. After some time they located a local artist and illustrator by the name of Harold Wolfinbarger, Jr. I clearly remember my lessons and the welcome odors of paint, turpentine, varnish, and linseed oil that permeated the room.
My lessons were on Saturday afternoons, with a small group of other students who were adults. We sat in a room, painting from a slide projected onto a screen. The images were all Colorado landscapes.
With Mr. Wolfinbarger’s help, I learned the basics of drawing, value, color, and mixing and applying paint. I continued studying with Mr. Wolfinbarger for several years and also studied art in school. During my teenage years, however, I became disillusioned with some of the contemporary art I was introduced to. I turned my focus from art to other endeavors, working and raising a family.
Although I was always dabbling in art and painting murals throughout my home, it took many years before I began to realize my dream as an artist.
In 1997 I discovered the Art Students League of Denver (ASLD). It was at a time in my life when I needed to make a change, and I was ready to rediscover my art. I noticed there was a year-long professional studies class then offered by the ASLD and taught by Quang Ho.
I applied for admission into the class and was accepted. That class changed my art and my life. It launched me into a three-year amazing and intense honeymoon with art, testing new ideas, questioning my underlying assumptions, experimenting, and relearning. During this time I also sought out other instructors, including Mark Daily, Ron Hicks, and Kevin Weckbach.
In 1999 I began painting professionally and was accepted into my first gallery.
True to my roots, I resumed painting landscapes. But during my studies at the ASLD, I was introduced to figurative and still life work and I began to play with those as well as other ideas. I wanted to discover where my voice was, where my passion was. And bit by bit, painting by painting, the “ordinary” began to emerge.
Why the Ordinary
I love seascapes, landscapes, portraits, gardens, and the like. They are unquestionably beautiful and certainly art worthy. I am grateful to artists who bring us breathtaking vistas and panoramas. However, the more I painted, the more I was intrigued by ordinary objects and scenes. Almost all of life is lived in the ordinary. I wanted to honor what we see every day, our shared experiences. Rain. Street workmen. Coke bottles. The more I looked, the more I realized there are wonderful shapes and colors and beauty to be found everywhere.
I also tend to be a storyteller in my work, and I create paintings of objects or scenes out of my own experiences, or an image I want to say something about. I have painted ketchup bottles to celebrate the ketchup I pulled out of the refrigerator nearly every day when my sons were young.
I painted a series of Lego cars and trucks to recall the time my younger son and I walked into a Lego store together to investigate key chains. I did a painting of a parking lot from the upper window of a medical office that I would stare out of while waiting to be seen. People probably best know me for my paintings of bottles and jars, as well as rain, workmen, and fallen leaf paintings.
The workmen series started years ago when I drove past a road crew working at night and was fascinated by the bright lights and heavy equipment. I returned to the site a few days later to take photographs, only to discover my tripod was broken and would only stand about two feet high. So I literally took photos while crawling around on the sidewalk with my camera on a broken tripod.
It was fairly late in the evening, and a policeman stopped to ask what I was doing. I explained and he let me be. I admit it was a rather humiliating experience. However, the painting from that photo shoot won Best of Show in the 2007 Oil Painters of America Central Regional Exhibition.
Then, several years later, roadwork was being done in my neighborhood. I would visit the site daily to take photographs. I was struck by the skill and artistry of the workers.
I took hundreds of photos as they worked on the streets for nearly two months. I wanted to honor their weeks of labor, hard work, and ten- to twelve-hour days.
I have proudly done a number of paintings highlighting those men and their work.
My rain series started with an intense fear of thunderstorms. That fear bothered me for years, and I would strive to be safe in my studio whenever rain was predicted. However, one afternoon I was caught under a thunderstorm during rush hour traffic with nowhere to take cover. Sitting in my car, feeling trapped and anxious, I instinctively picked up my camera and began to take photos of the rain on the windshield. The more I got involved with looking at the rain and taking pictures, the less anxious I became.
When you really look at raindrops, they are amazing, from their shapes to their color. When they hit the windshield, they are transformed and often look like dragons or fish or other creatures and they reflect wonderful colors. Thus began a healing process and a series of paintings featuring rain on windshields, rain on windows, rain falling in puddles or ponds. And, while I still don’t like tornado warnings or hail, thunderstorms rarely bother me now. Sometimes I actually look forward to rain so that I can get more resource material.
The fallen leaf painting arose from a walk in the park during autumn. I was in a reflective mood, musing about life and legacy. The leaves had fallen off the trees and I was shuffling through them, noticing the patterns of the leaves as I continued to contemplate. I pulled out my phone and started taking photos of the leaves, and then began to arrange the leaves on the ground. As I worked with the leaves and continued to think about life, it occurred to me that the leaves fall, but are never lost. They nourish the soil for a new crop of leaves. So “The Fallen” is a tribute to those that came before, those who will come after, and our place in space and time.
As to my still life paintings of bottles and jars? I love them!
Bottles and jars are full of exciting reflections, they come in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes, they are readily available, and they can be arranged in an infinite number of ways. I never tire of painting them.
Painting and Process
Of course, the subject matter is only the beginning step in creating a painting. A thought, a good idea, is not enough. An artist needs to use the tools available to turn a thought into a painting. There is intention, composition, shape, value, color, texture, and edges. And then there is painting with love.
I paint slowly. It takes me weeks to months to complete some of my complex paintings. During that time I am looking at the subject matter, trying to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary with paint.
I need to love what I paint because I will be staring at it for weeks.
As to my painting process, I begin each painting with a value sketch. If I am doing a still life, I will work from the objects themselves, set up in my studio. I will then do a thumbnail or a series of thumbnails to solve as many problems as possible. Once I am satisfied with the composition, I might lightly draw the still life onto the painting surface with light pencil strokes or simply block it in with paint. Then I will begin the painting process, working in a conventional fashion from the background to the foreground, larger shapes to smaller shapes. I prefer working on gessoed board because it gives me a stable surface for heavy brushstrokes, knife work, or even occasional sanding.
The process is different, however, if I am painting one of my larger, complex paintings, as in the case of the rain, workmen, or leaf paintings. For these I use a grid system to ensure a more accurate drawing of these complex paintings.
It is easier to transfer information from one square to another than to try and draw or paint thousands of small shapes on an entire large painting surface without getting lost. In that case I use my own photography and I narrow down my choices for the painting to about five or six photographs. I then make black and white enlarged photocopies of the images I am interested in painting.
I will choose the top three to five photocopies and use black, white, and gray tempera paint to paint directly on the photocopies to create a three- or four-value study of the scene.
Although this is labor intensive, I prefer to do this work by hand rather than rely on the computer. I can make different decisions when working by hand, and I become much more familiar with the image.
Sometimes I will use the same image in different ways, making different value decisions. I may play around with cropping an image. Then I tape the value studies around my studio, turning them upside down and sideways, and spending a few hours or a few days looking at them and studying them.
After I have decided on what I think is the best composition, I enlarge the chosen photo, then I grid the photo as well as the painting surface. (If you decide to try this, the photo and the surface must be the same ratio or this process will not work.)
When I grid a photo, I tape the photo down on cardboard. I then use a needle and thread and sew the grid in place. That way, I can simply move the thread aside if I need to see what is underneath it. When I grid the painting surface, I use light pencil lines.
When I paint, I work from the color photo, using the value study as a guide for the values. I will paint each square individually, making changes and integrating the painting as I proceed from square to square, beginning with the upper left-hand square and working across and then down, square by square, row by row.
This work requires a great deal of patience as the painting slowly emerges. When the entire painting is in place, I will then do finish work, softening or losing edges, building up areas of texture, or adding hints of color. I generally take a nearly finished painting outside into natural light, or into the garage to back well away from it to see if it has all come together.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dianne Massey Dunbar has been painting professionally since 1999. She is a Master Signature Member of American Women Artists, a Signature Member of Oil Painters of America, and a member of the Art Students League of Denver. She is proudly represented by Gallery 1261, Denver, CO; Grapevine Gallery, Oklahoma City, OK; RS Hanna Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; and Edward Montgomery Fine Art, Carmel, CA.