Screwing Up A Painting Correctly

Detail from Six Menger Sponges In Transit

So, this isn’t the painting I thought I was making when I decided to make it.

At conception, Six Menger Sponges In Transit was going to be a sort of sequel to another oil painting I’d done months earlier, Green Twins.  That earlier work was the result of some experimentation with paint diluting mediums, particularly Neo Megilp which I took an early liking to because of the way it makes oil paint more transparent and slick without making it runny.  (I should write a bit more about that some time.)

Green Twins

With Green Twins I ended up producing an ethereal, weightless feeling and a hint of some mechanical texture to the twin cube objects. (Technically it’s a cube and a first degree Menger sponge; technically technically a cube is a zeroeth-degree Menger sponge.)  The thinned paint laid out in multiple layers, with textured foreground over wispy background, really works for me.  It has a science fiction feel to it, like something very old but manufactured with unfamiliar tools.

I didn’t know what I was aiming for when I made it, but I liked what came out.

And so months later I decided to revisit it.  In doing so I made the questionable move of changing all the details while expecting the output to feel the same.  It didn’t work.

Six Mengers, first draft.

I got to painting, and I ended up with something with the basic shape/composition I’d imagined but…not what I was looking for.

What I kept: small cube shapes in horizontal sequence on the canvas.

What I changed: every damn thing otherwise:

  1. A flat, even neutral gray background instead of a the complicated wispy green of Green Twins.
  2. Flatter, less translucent colors in the cube elements.
  3. Less organized brush strokes, filling color in with a round brush instead of the highly directional angled stroke texture of Green Twins.
  4. A complicated set of colors instead of the simple unity of greens and yellows.

It’d shouldn’t be a surprise that a painting full of different decisions had a different feel, but I’m still experimenting a lot at this point, and tweaking too many knobs at once is part of that.

And to be clear, I don’t think these decisions were bad.  They all work toward a flatter, more…designery? approach which was the mode I was in at the time with some other work.  But they weren’t decisions that served the gut feeling I had going in.

And, so: I didn’t like where that landed after the first pass.  The different texture to the background and the Menger sponges was part of it, but also: my color mixing choices didn’t get me where I wanted. I made the mistake of taking a very strict approach of picking six pigments and using those colors out of the tube for the darker/lower portion of each sponge, and a mixture of each with white as the lighter portion.

The original colors, in order.

These are all colors I like, and I like them in combination in general, but there were problems here.  I had imagined (without putting it into words and practice) that I’d keep the value — the relative lightness/darkness — of each of the sponges’ color areas close, so that while one would be red and another blue and another orange and so on, all of those would have fairly even brightness, one to the next.  The darker lower portions would be equally darker than the mid grey background; the lighter upper portions would be equally lighter.

The six original colors, from the tube and with their mixed-with-white lighter shades.

But, and again this should not have been a surprise, but: phthalo blue doesn’t have the same value out of the tube as yellow ochre, or indian yellow.  It’s a fairly dark blue.  And cadmium red deep is a darkish, very rich red.  Yellow ochre isn’t a bright yellow color but it’s still fairly light.  And so on.  By marrying myself to this straight tube colors scheme I undercut that idea of consistent color value from sponge to sponge.  I was stubborn; I could have and should have mixed the core colors with other shades if I wanted to get the values evened out.

If my goal had been to study variations in contrast, great.  If.

Paint lifted off the canvas with paper towel

I was unhappy with the color, and unhappy with the texture, and in a little bit of desperate experimentation I decided to try tonking the surface with some paper towel.  I’d hoped it might create interesting texture — which it did, a little, but not enough to get excited about — and do something about the color feel, which it didn’t.  Maybe leave things feeling a little ghostly?  Nope, just…still flat and not doing anything for me.

So I stood the canvas up out of the way in my little office/studio and let it sit and moved on to other things.

Late in the second pass, with broken colors, just before the knife.

This weekend, I came back to it, hoping to get somewhere.  I resolved to try a couple of things:

  1. Recolor all of the Menger sponges, top and bottom, with thicker, undiluted paint. I’m working against an intentionally dull grey, let’s go vibrant.
  2. Alter some color issues more generally: darken the dark lower shade of the far left yellow sponge, lighten the lighter upper shade of the blue, rework the far right indian yellow sponge in purple since the subtle variation in yellows/oranges of the original wasn’t landing for me.

I did a pass just laying on flat color, and liked that it was popping a little more chromatically but was otherwise not feeling like it had improved much.

Got a little desperate, started adding in some tinges of mixed/broken color from one cube to the next — oranges and greens in the yllow, blues and red in the green, and so on.  Departing now entirely from the flat uniform color idea in hopes of finding something.

Got a little more desperate, pushed the broken color farther, heading a bit toward a sloppy, aggressive riff on Seurat‘s pointillism (but with wet-in-wet colors so everything was muddier — I’d done one prior experiment more deliberately along those lines a while back, Menger Pointillism), and laying paint splotches over the previously clean and geometric edges of the sponges.

Hoping for something and still not finding it.  The pieces of the painting had gotten more interesting to me but I still wasn’t happy with the painting itself.  The broken color, the pseudo-pointillism, the broken-up lines were all doing something but it felt more like raw material for some future thought-out thing than what I was trying to get to with this.

And so: get all the way desperate.  Give up, give in, do something stupid that might just ruin the whole thing.

I took a palette knife, my favorite one, this guy:

Hey, it’s this guy.

And I dragged it down the whole length of the painting, left to right, along the top third or so of the image, streaking multi-colored daubs of paint across the surface of each sponge and into and through the negative space of its implied third side and beyond, the paint trail thinning with distance, until the knife came to the next sponge and picked up more paint and the process repeated.

And again, across the lower third of the image.

And again, across the middle stripe.

Six Menger Sponges In Transit

And that was it.  That was absolutely the thing.  It was a risk and an accident and at the end of a lot of trouble I ended up getting lucky by doing something reckless.

I screwed it up just right.

I love the progressive mixing of color from one sponge to the next, the way that paint still on the knife but not catching on the surface in transit from one sponge to the next becomes caught up with the paint on the next one, creating this strange chromatic chaos.  I love the way that impulsive — and basically unsuccessful on its own merits — experiment of bringing in mixed colors paid off at this final stage by bringing traces of contrasting color into the cube trails.  I love the way the negative right-facing spaces of the cubes are significantly but not completely filled in, leaving them in a kind of liminal state, there-and-not-there.  And none of that was going to happen intentionally this time, though it’s given me ideas to pursue with intent in the future.

I love how it looks from a distance, that sense of movement and ordered chaos; I love how it looks up close, like in the detail shot at the top of this post, with the subtle swirl of colors in and beyond the sponges and the mix of colors riding the top surface of the canvas weave while the grey underlayer stands out in its pocked recesses as a kind of pixelated contrast screen.

In talking about the painting-in-progress off and on since first starting it, my wife had mentioned a sense of transit even in the flat early renderings of the Menger sponges.  The horizontal procession, the isometric view suggesting we’re looking at cubes that have already passed us along a corridor in sequence.

So the sense of motion from the streaks adding to that settled the title for me.  Six Menger Sponges In Transit it is.


Author: Josh Millard

I manage and help moderate the community website MetaFilter, where I go by "cortex"; in my spare time I get up to all sorts of creative nerdery on the internet and in Portland, Oregon.

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