The Florentine School

Those two or three years studying with Ben Long, I must have heard a hundred times a day, “this is how it’s done in the Florentine School, so this is how you are going to do it.” The classical tradition began with the Renaissance Masters, and has been passed down for centuries, generation to generation, Master to apprentice … and somehow it ended up with me. (Fortunately it also ended up with many other artists … whew! …way too scary to think of myself as the sole standard-bearer.)

How the Florentine School found me is another story … the yard sale. I’ll save that for later.

The Florentine School is not just a specific art style … the way the paintings look to the viewer … there’s a lot more to it. It is a tradition that includes not just making art, but also the lifestyle and philosophy around the work. Studio rituals. The painting process. The materials. The way of seeing. All things composition. Interacting with subjects. With clients. With patrons. What you eat and drink. It is the complete commitment to living as a classical artist. It is the often overlooked details … the mark of the studio — how the painting is signed (always in red). It is the reason I call myself Studio C Shute. It is the willingness to face a cold November morning with hope … (and hot mushroom meatball soup for breakfast).

This installment of “The Florentine School” is “making boards” as Ben used to say. It was heavy with process, so we usually devoted most of a day to it, and made multiple boards at one time. Painting on a rigid surface (if using the right materials … the “traditional” ones, of course) is the most archival method. Fresco is actually more permanent, but it’s not really the same thing, since in fresco the pigment is absorbed into the plaster, and does not rest on top of it in a paint film.

Making boards: rabbit skin glue prepared in double boiler, birch plywood, either three-quarters thick or one-quarter mounted on stretcher bars, wood sealed with glue, linen or canvas (always linen for portraits) glued to the board with warm glue starting from the center out, edges wrapped and corner folds done just so, dry for two days at least, light sanding to make sure the paint gets down into the linen fibers, lead white ground, a week or two (minimum) to cure, and then you are ready to paint.

This is my first time prepping boards in the Lockhart StudioKitchen, so I’m just figuring out how this machine will work. Here is a fairly large canvas, 30 by 48 inches, ready … well, maybe late today … for the first layer of ground. This panel is for a landscape commission … a river scene called “The Sand Bar” … which was actually the view outside my wonderful little studio in Fort Gaines. Can’t wait to get started ….

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Woke Studio

I’ve been painting A LOT in the past few days … and that can become disorienting. I call it losing time — the normal patterns of sleeping-eating-working-day-night … they just fade away. Frankly, it’s a pretty terrific place to be for painting, but not being earthbound for too long just gets weird. So I try to be hyper-vigilant about meditation, which for me is grounding, mostly using the mind-emptying TM approach. Lately I’ve been using techniques with a physical dimensions to the practice, like walking and writing meditations. (note to self: time to finally learn yoga). This morning I’ve been lost in a wonderful poem from Rumi …. handwriting it word for word … step by step … like face to face contact with the ideas one by one.

Very peaceful. So now back to the angstie business of delivering the promise of Venus.

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Still Angstie Over Venus

… woke up this morning way before 5:00 and dashed into the studio …. wondering what on earth I did yesterday. I think I like the direction the background is going. I’m sure I like the symbolism. And I think a viewer could like it even without “the story” … well, if Venus is good … no pressure there!

So that’s what is happening today … back to the figure and the face. It’s usually about 10:00 when the light steadies enough to do some real painting. Dark is ok to studio paint, and light is ok … but those shoulder times are tough … the light moves all over the place. Ok… here we go, Venus.

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Floppy Dog Roses

Today has been one of the best days and one of the worst days in the studio … lost in reverie of painting, angstie over how to express an idea, relieved to have finally surrendered to an impulse, and now … even more angstie over how well it all turned out.

All day I’ve been working on the Birth of Venus painting, specifically the background flowers. The original intention had been to render a wide variety of different flowers fairly realistically … suggesting a garden coming into bloom and crowded with randomly distributed vegetation. But I started sketching it out on the canvass this morning, and it just felt wrong … too much noise around the subject, my Venus … perhaps undermining the story I want her to tell. Angstie!

I ended up wiping off hours of work and starting over with a deeper and simpler idea … one I’ve been seeing in my imagination for days. Stylized roses emerging from the deep, blooming at the surface as idea expressed, and following Venus up into the golden day.

Wow … so that’s what I attempted to do … all day drawing and paint sketching roses. I just cleaned the pallet and decided to call it a night, determined to “turn it against the wall” as my teacher used to say when he meant, “you’re too close to it; time to give it a rest” … and I guess it is time to give it a rest when rose doodles over dinner turn into floppy dogs.

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Honey in Progress

Here’s the latest pet sketch, Honey after a couple of sessions. I love these interim levels of finish. Hopefully she’ll be dry enough to work tomorrow … ready to paint some bees.

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Bee Doodle

… been enjoying the company of these guys all summer.

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StudioKitchen Saturday Night

Great time today working on Honey … advancing the painting, collecting bee photos, and working (will it ever end!!!?) on the kitchen floor. But it’s already a cozy space … cabin in the country … chili and football … StudioKitchen Saturday night.

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Honey Bee

Yesterday I rendered the underpainting for a new pet sketch — Honey. I’m using the image of a young Golden Retriever, enormous foreshortened nose, and a floppy-tongued smile. She reminds me, of course, of my beloved Poppy, both having deep honey colored coats. True to my school, the background should derive, at least in part, from studio surroundings. Thus the story of the basil:

Outside the StudioKitchen is a garden … flowers and herbs … Italian parsley, flowering sage, bushy rosemary, lemon thyme, marigolds, knockout roses, purple phlox, multi-colored zinnias, and others with forgotten names. Oh … and also the basil.

The garden did well this summer, thanks to diligent watering. The rosemary really took off, as did the roses. But the uncontested superstar was the basil. Now, I’ve always had good luck with basil, and everywhere I go my basil-power follows. But this year the plants went wild. From humble beginnings … a single seed pack and starter pots from the $1 isle at Dollar General … to a basil forest, crowded with basil trees, and flowering-seed-pod-tipped branches stretching up into the sky. It was, as they say, a sight to behold.

If you’ve had your own basil forest, then you already know this amazing factoid — bees love basil forests. Benevolent bees covered the studio garden all summer. And late in the season, feeling dwarfed by the basil trees for too long, the sage exploded with red flowers … attracting butterflies and hummingbirds … and the place began to feel like a petting zoo.

So Honey is going to have bees in her background … maybe even a bee halo since she looks so much like an angel.

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Macy Interstellar revised

Commissioned portrait painting, even just a little pet sketch, can be a nervous business.

When a client commissions a work, it’s not enough to execute the painting well, it’s also important to listen to them, understand what it is they want, and deliver something within (or hopefully exceeding) their expectations. Sometimes they say, “just do what you do,” and that’s great … my favorite song! But sometimes they say, “can you find a way to work in my favorite duck decoy?” If I take the commission, the decoy is an important element … and if I don’t see the beauty of the decoy, I shouldn’t even try to do the portrait. In fact, I’ve turned down several commissions over the years because the client wanted something outside of my range … a composition or style that doesn’t fit my voice … something that didn’t feel right to me. I can still hear my teacher Ben Long saying, “If you sit down with a subject and you don’t feel beauty there, walk away … you’ll never paint a beautiful picture.”

So when the client likes the work, it’s always a wonderful feeling, mostly relief, but also, for some reason a wee bit of surprise.

Joni has commissioned quite a few pet sketches over the years; and of course, she’s good about ordering Christmas gifts in September! As is the usual process, she sends me several photos of the pet, I pick one image to use as a source for the subject, and tend to make up the background based on whatever happens in the studio at the time.

For Macy Interstellar I was watching space movies while painting. I generally watch movies or listen to books to keep my conscious mind occupied so my subconscious can drive the bus, so to speak. For me, thinking too much is the perfect way to spoil a painting. Since events in the news are mind-bending these days, it’s feeling sensible to leave the planet altogether. Space movies.

Joni loved the painting, and particularly the interpretation of the globe in the background … an object that really was on the source photo. Turns out the globe was a treasured gift from Joni, and she was thrilled to see it celebrated with Macy Interstellar. Whey!!!! After seeing it, she asked if I could add an airplane since the recipient works for United Airlines. Absolutely. What a great idea. So this is Macy Interstellar revised.

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We are Different

When I was a kid reading was very, very difficult. Guess it’s just the way my brain is wired. But since math was so easy, my engineer father refused to give up on me. In compensation, my family read to me constantly … guess they figured that a life without “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn” was no kind of life at all. So you can imagine everyone’s complete amazement when, at thirteen, I went out entirely on my own and bought a book. Even more shocking, it was a book without any pictures at all.

Here’s the story. After one of my weekly music lessons, at Cotswold Mall in Charlotte, I was wandering around … killing time until Mother collected me. There was a used book sale — table after table of books, stacked spine up, probably four for a dollar or something like that. I remember the way the tables were arranged it was an easy jump in my mind’s eye to see boxcars lined up in a vast railroad switching yard. Open-top boxcars full of books. And for some inexplicable reason, I felt compelled to get closer and look at the titles. Oddly, there was one, lost in this sea, that drew me to it … a book called “Sermon on the Mount” by Emmet Fox.

I sat on a bench in the mall and started reading. It was easier than usual. With every paragraph and every page, I remember thinking one thing: ‘I know this already’ … but what I didn’t know at that time was that there were other people out there like me. So I’ve never thought of this pivotal moment in my life as a conversion … whatever that means. It was much more like a homecoming … discovering that there are other people who see the world as I do. Prior to that I’d always thought, ‘I am different’ and I was ok with that. Then suddenly, what a cozy shift over to ‘we are different’. It would be years before I would meet any of these other people like me … and years after that before I would come to live from the place where art and science and religion converge.

While organizing the new studio yesterday, I found this picture … a cruxifixction study painted ages ago, mostly as an exercise in using thick glazes to convey an otherworldly feeling … in this case, the feeling of Christ energy. For me that is the energy of creation itself … of mind expressing itself in matter. The intentional conversion of mind to matter is divine … it is doing God’s work.

I remember doing several of these, and for some reason this one has survived. It’s tempting, even with a backlog of work, to take up this idea again. Hmmmm …. but this time the energy shape will be more advanced. Instead of a circular vortex with a triangular base connecting to earth, I would paint the shape of two triangles, the bottom base joining with an inverted triangular top, like the shape of an ‘X” … and the circular energy vortex pulsing out from point of convergence.

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Love me some StudioKitchen

Found this great old cupboard for the kitchen side of StudioKitchen. The color is Naples yellow — actually, my favorite (sorry Indian yellow, you are a close second). Salvidor Dali in 1948 said the pigment was mined from Mount Vesuvius. Paul Cezanne, when seeing another artist’s palette without it, was thunderstruck …. “you paint with just these?” I’m with you, Paul!

My two favorite ceramists are displayed. Belgian chickens and Santa Fe dishes.

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Macy Interstellar

Little pet sketch of Macy. Painted with space movies, thus the name.

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There's Something About an Unfinished Painting

A friend said to me recently, “I don’t worry about you as long as you have an unfinished painting … you’ll live to finish it no matter what!” And she’s right. I love the feeling of waking up at 4:52 and heading straight into the studio… well … stop for coffee and pets … take the pallet out of the freezer (it takes about 30 minutes for paints to warm enough to use) … some morning sounds (anything other than outrage these days) … and then to work. Today I’m listening to a Victorian romance novel. Middlemarch. Not deeply connected to the story, but absolutely adore such an elegant stroll through the English language.

Here’s the current Studio side of StudioKitchen … we still have more to do … floor finishes (as yet undetermined), ceiling paint, glazes on the walls, a few more trim boards … but commission work is stacking up: four pet sketches and a couple of pending pieces (unusually, a still life and a landscape), a followup to the Peacemaker Narrative (composition in development with subject and fellow artist, Bucko Brandt) … and, of course, Birth of Venus (not a commission, expect I’ll hold on to this one for a little while) … so here we go.

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Studiokitchen October

Excited about progress in the StudioKitchen. Found a great mantle … decked out for the season.

Saying farewell to Murder She Wrote … the still life version of a literary cozy. Painted during the contentious election fight between Trump and Clinton to escape the mean-mean-crazy. Think I’m going to turn to Birth of Venus to escape these dark-dark-crazy days … especially now that the studio side of the StudioKitchen is OPEN FOR BUSINESS!!!

So Godspeed Murder She Wrote … off to a new home.

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Best In Show

Last weekend my painting Peacemaker won Best in Show at WMAC’s inaugural exhibition. They asked me to write about how it felt to win:

“First, I have to say, I’m so excited to be a part of WMAC’s world. This first exhibition was as professionally conducted as I have ever seen.

How I felt about Best in Show? Well, at the time, honestly, I was shocked.

It’s not that I didn’t think my painting is good. As a professional artists mature, we know our good work from our less successful efforts — I think that’s a key part of being a professional. So I wasn’t surprised to have been included in the show.

When I arrived that evening and saw the body of work I was thrilled. Virtually every piece in the exhibition is good — very good. A couple of pieces took my breath away. So I felt particularly honored to be included. As an objective observer (if that’s possible), I’d have had a really hard time picking the best pieces.

With Peacemaker, I had pushed myself into a new space with portraiture. In my early work I tended to avoid background, contextual elements, thinking at the time that the subject should convey their story a priori — that the essence of the sitter should be codified in the presentation of their likeness, and if successful, the minimalist approach would say everything that needed to be said. So this new approach for me, including symbolic elements to tell the story, was a big leap.

How I feel about Best in Show now? I honestly feel … I guess the word is validated. I wasn’t sure if the piece worked. So now I’m really charged up about this new direction, and ready to take on more portrait-stories. And I’m so very grateful to WMAC for giving me a big hug along the way!”

I’m not sure what you are “supposed” to say about honors like this one, so I just told the truth. I also want to send a big shout out to my body man, Carey. He knew how disoriented I was at the time, and propped me up. Thanks for that.

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In real Life

Guess it’s official … the two rooms that were just last week a studio and a kitchen are now a Studio Kitchen. Figuring out the header part ….

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Back to Work

It’s way too early to be moving back into the studio, but I need to get back to work. Every Studio Kitchen needs a hefty Spanish table …. desk … dining … studio work … And yes, still lots of trim carpentry and painting to do … but I’ve worked happily in less finished spaces, so this feels pretty good.

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Surprises in the Studio Kitchen

As is usually the case with reclamation projects like my beloved mill house studio, there will be surprises. I knew the house was structurally sound, so fortunately wasn’t expecting unhappy surprises. But after removing layer upon layer of finishes — walls, floors and ceilings — we are getting down to the original structure. And the original paint. I remember from my Charlotte NODA projects, the mill used three colors of paint for their villages — blue, yellow, and green … and very distinctive versions of each color. It was always fun to discover under a moulding or trim board the original version of the color, always brighter and cheerier than the 100 year old oxidized versions seen on beadboard walls and ceilings.

Well my Lockhart girl has a studio wall and ceiling color that is now a blue-green, but looks like it was originally a deep sky blue (a summer sky). Generally each of the rooms in a house were painted different colors, so I wasn’t sure what to expect in the kitchen. Turns out the walls are yellow, faded now to a pale buttery hue. And the ceiling! It’s dark red … in fact, it’s probably the same red as the studio floor.

And then there are couple of other surprises. A window concealed behind paneling and drywall. And what a beauty! Also structural discoveries in the wall between the studio and kitchen which will require a much smaller opening than originally planned.

So now I’ve got some reimagining to do …

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Studio Kitchen

This is an exciting time for Studio C Shute Lockhart.

My dream studio is one combined with the kitchen. This probably stems from time working in Ben Long’s Asheville studio on dismal gray winter days. He had a huge industrial warehouse space in downtown, and on the north side was the painting studio — for the north light (such as it was during an Asheville winter) — and at the other end of the cavernous space was a kitchen. Big farmhouse work table. Dusty Persian carpets. Lots of books. Dumpster diver chairs (many of which I was responsible for procuring). Used restaurant equipment. All sorts of interesting sculptural objects around. And at the end of the work day we’d start cooking … usually French, but sometimes Italian. Most of the artist I know (at least the good ones) are terrific cooks. So the meals were always divine.

Typical of the Carolina mill houses I’ve restored, this Lockhart one has four square rooms (downstairs), and no central hall … just doors connecting all the rooms to each other. So I’m opening up the back two spaces for a studio kitchen.

We’ve had to remove all the “modern”… (read as “dreadful”) … finishes on walls, floors, and dropped ceiling … even the old coal fireplace was bricked over. The floor was a bear because they had nailed the subfloor, with huge nails, every six inches or so. Crazy. But the rest of the finishes came right off! Like she couldn’t wait to shed an old, unwelcome skin. At one point they painted a beautiful cranberry red on the floor, but only around the carpet. It’s funny, but I’ve seen this before — floors painted around the furniture and rugs. We’re going to use that red on the floor across the finished space (already found the RED retro refrigerator! for the kitchen side). Studio white on the beadboard walls and ceilings of course. And leaving the beautiful blue-green paint on the plaster around the fireplace.

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