Brown Bear Totem, 2014
36” x 36” x 1.5”
From the Bear Pole at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park.
The pole tells the story of an abandoned blind man saved
from starvation by a bear who brought him fish to eat.
The blind man's descendants became known as the Bear Clan.
After completing the smaller ‘Watchful Eye’ painting, I felt drawn to an image and storyline that totally captivated me. I loved how the image was juxtaposed as seeming contrary to the nurturing story, of the brown bear coming to the aid of the abandoned blind man. There was that menacing toothy grin, and yet, having read the story, I could no longer see the face other then gentle and loving.
It was a compelling image but daunting as well. I was being called to once again reach completely beyond myself. I knew that this would be a major shift forward for me, or failure. The level of detail would challenge any progress that I had made so far. I had considered a square 24”x24” canvas but I felt that the story and the bear’s face commanded more attention, more of an imposing size. So I nervously purchased a 36”x36”canvas.
I went back to spend some time with the totem at the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, even though having the pay the full fee just to see the one totem. The printed image that I had was great but I just needed to be with the totem and set my hand on it. Totems, as does wood in general, have a vibration to them. Life!
Once back in the studio, sitting there and looking at a large blank white canvas is overpowering. But I had a good image to work from and the task at hand was to get rid of all the white. I painted the whole canvas in a dark Taupe. I also always paint the sides of an exhibition canvas, as I don’t want any white to affect my colour choices.
The design of this totem had the added complexity of the mouth and nostrils. Everything had to be plotted out just right in order to be faithful to the original, and getting the perspective right. The mouthful of teeth was a case in point and then, even though the nose looks simple enough, it underwent a few changes for it to read correctly. I did the usual black for the eyebrows and the eyes and a dark gray for the lips and nostrils. But for the rest of the face, I stayed with the base taupe that I started with. There was so much about this face that was new to me, so many details that I would have to experiment with. There were so many wonderful things that I loved about this face. It is a gem that commands attention.
I don’t want to get down to a minutia of all the steps but the process was extensive. I started with my comfort zone of the eyes and eyebrows and then put in some of the shadowing which defined the carving. I wasn’t sure yet how I was going to tackle the graining around the eyes and bridge of the nose, so I decided to begin developing the mouth. If it didn’t work, the whole canvas would be a failure. This is where I spent much time looking back and forth from the image to the canvas. To do this, I keep both next to each other and at the same eyesight level. If something doesn’t look right on the canvas, it is time to study the original again. It is more often a case where a line or the shaping is off, and it just needs a slight tweaking to get it right. When in doubt, ‘trust the original image to inform you’. What am I seeing? What is different on the canvas? The same goes for the colours. For example, this totem was challenging in that there was a wide range of reds, from the bright to more muted, and at various levels of wear on the side of the face exposed to the sun.
Once I was able to get the shading worked out for the teeth, I had to grapple the visible wood graining. There were a number of colours within the faint graining, so I began with lighter glazes. I found that I could use a technique that I had often used within my iconography (for fabrics and woods), but going back even further, to the years when I did statuary restoration. Huh? A technique that I used then, when repainting statuary, was taking a small round brush and gold paint, and painting freehand undulating lines on the solid coloured fabric in a manner resembling a gold inlay brocade. I found that with a fine script liner brush and very watered down paint, I could use the same technique for the graining. But for this, I held the original image in my other hand so that I could hold it directly by where I was painting so that I could follow the contours. After that, I would do the process again (and again) with another colour that I could see in the image. But these wood grains had to remain fluid and not be solid in any way, giving definition and shape to the wooden teeth, but subtly so.
Now having the confidence of having worked out the teeth and mouth, I proceeded with the similar graining around the eyes, nose, and cheeks. The graining was all done with a brush but all other glazes and shadings were always down with my fingertips. I had to work very gradually as the shades and outlines of the upper face were smoothly carved and the colourings such as the reds around the one eye were so very gentle.
The nostrils took many layers to develop the more worn orangey reds and slight hints of mineral deposits from the exposure to the wet climate. Getting the shading right for the cheeks on the far edges of the canvas was important, as the eyes bulge out a bit from the eye socket and cheek bone on the edges. On the actual totem, the edges of the face work back very quickly. I had chosen to crop the image to keep out any visible background (foliage from the trees behind he totem), which was visible in spots just past where I had cropped the image. I had to finely crop in order to preserve as much of the eyes as possible; where they read comfortably as a complete eye, and maintaining their strength.
The last detail that I had been avoiding up until now was the carved texture of the eyebrows, along with the shaping of the forehead. When in doubt, I always start slowly and lightly. Like the old cooking technique of adding salt gradually, you can always add a bit more salt as you go, but if you over salt from the start, there is no going back (other then completely starting over). The same goes with painting. Fortunately with acrylic, should that happen, you can repaint a particular area and try again. The other advantage of my technique is that, by painting thinly, I usually don’t have problems with the original paint texture showing through a repainted surface.
While working the eyebrows, I stepped back in my studio (backing up from my den and into my kitchen in my case) to see how they were reading. This is a general note for painting. You need to step back to ‘see’ it as the viewer will be seeing it. You can’t do that when up close and personal with the canvas. I would add more colours to pick up the highlighting on the carving, catching the light of the sun on the forehead.
So that is the extent of the journey with this totem. This painting will always hold a special place in my heart. Both in the image that it is but mostly because, as an artist, I see the threshold that it led me through. I have a fondness for all the paintings that I’ve done so far, and I am completely comfortable with how the earlier ones are more basic then the recent paintings. But that doesn’t make them ‘less’. They are complete onto themselves and were critical steps of discovery leading to the next. As an aside, when I held the first exhibition of this series at the Silk Purse Gallery, and having hung the series, it was a special moment for me to stand in the middle of the room, and finally see the whole series together. I could so clearly see the progression of a year and a half of solid work through them. Yes it was a series, but each painting was totally distinct from the others. Each had been informed by the original image. I could look at each painting and see how it led to the next. During this exhibition, I had a gentleman recommend that I should have made this painting 48”x48”…even 60”x60”. Aside from the panic that sparked through the brain (at the thought), I just answered that if he wanted one that size, I was up to it. Haven’t heard from him yet. ;-)
'Brown Bear' is owned by Jinny Rodrigo, North Vancouver , BC