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On the Table

The work table is the center of my studio. It’s where the physical work of making a painting takes place. My table is 8x8 ft. square and low (20”), made of two sheets of 1/2” plywood and lumber. It’s not perfect—there is a slight ridge where the plywood meets. The table is covered with plastic sheeting. I can comfortably work on six paper paintings simultaneously, or one or two canvases. I try to keep space free around the table, where I constantly walk around to work. It is not a table for sitting at.

Since college, I have worked mostly horizontally. I painted on boards on the floor at Cranbrook Academy of Art. It’s a technique I learned from a friend, Martin Hoogasian, and from our art teacher, Darryl Hughto. Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler pioneered painting on unstretched canvas on the floor and we adopted a similar technique. There are advantages and disadvantages to working this way. For us, it was about advances in abstract painting and offered certain freedoms from long-established easel painting conventions and from academic figuration. Limitations of scale and paint handling were thrown wide open. I learned to roll out canvas to a chosen length, then staple the edges to boards on the floor or a platform, and to work from all sides.

There were times when I worked upright, in the conventional manner, by stapling a canvas to the wall or by hanging a stretched canvas on a nail, but working horizontally became second nature. By 1980, I was working on a plywood tabletop on a sawhorse legs. While the table size has changed, it evolved to become the low table I use now. Beneath the table, I store a large roll of canvas, some tools (electric mitre saw, tool box), and lumber.

Painting horizontally on the table top, I am able to use very fluid paint or very thick paint without concern that it will flow or drip off the canvas. Since I paint abstractly (non-figuratively) there is not necessarily a predetermined orientation—so up, down, and sidewise remain to be decided afterwards, when I can view the painting against the wall. In practice, I often become aware of a preferred orientation during the painting process, so the decision is made intuitively. Upright, on the wall, lifted from the table top that bears the overflow of paint and random marks of its making, the painting can be seen clearly. The visual weights and tensions and movement of paint and the color interactions reveal the painting.

Drying time may present a problem. Once the table is filled with wet paintings, progress is paused. It’s not easy to keep the table top clear. It’s often filled with jars of paint colors, various paint tools (brushes, squeegees, sponges, tape), paint and water buckets, and materials like paper and plastic scraps, rolled paintings, and lumber. One of the first things I have to do is clear space before I can begin to work.

The table is used for many activities besides the application of paint and watching it dry. I build stretchers and stretch canvas. I sort through stacks of paper paintings and paintings rolled on carpet tubes. I lay out work and view work in progress. I mix paint colors, test colors, and make swatches. I cut and collage paint scraps. Occasionally, I draw or watercolor. I photograph work in progress. I remove tape and staples from the surface. I shuffle paintings to see them in different relations and from various perspectives.

Much time is spent in looking, visualizing, and planning how I want to proceed. I’m in constant motion, walking around the table to get at something: a brush, scissors, a color, another color—simultaneously viewing the paintings from the periphery—in the round. It’s not unusual to forget what I went for and have to backtrack. I’m deep in thought: Is this the right color? How do I want to apply the paint? Is this painting ready for the next step? What’s wrong with this other painting? Is it too much or not enough? Can I resolve this one simply or in stages? Is it done?? First this and then that….

As I said, this isn’t passive work and there’s a constant churn of work in progress on the table.

Photos by Jeffrey Kurland.

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