A Whale Tale

Apposition of One

A beautiful whale bone was lent to me by an artist/collector who wondered if I’d like to use it for a painting.  Yes!  How could I pass this up?  Bones are a subject I love to explore.  It turned out to be a bone of multiple personalities, and it presented me with challenges.  This is the story of the painting and the bone.

the set up

This wonderful vertebra is heavy and large, and has a different character every way you look at it.  When I got hold of it, I started to work on setting up a still life.

A single view of the bone, however, opened itself up to misinterpretation.  Some of these visages were hardly majestic:  from one angle it looked like a bunny, and from another Marge Simpson.  I was afraid of immortalizing it into something with an unplanned interpretation, like painting a cloud in the shape of a duck.

The “why” of the painting just didn’t materialize with the simple still-life set ups that I first tried.

The solution came when I decided to show it viewed from many directions.  Eleven views of one bone, placed consciously in relationship to each other.  Apposition of One was its working title, and it stuck.

John was enlisted to help pose the bone for reference photos

How to set up the views was another problem.  I wanted to hang it, as I often do with props.  But the bone was very fragile.  And not mine.  So I enlisted John to help, and I photographed while he held it in dozens of poses.

the composition

The progression of views is not a simple rotation, in fact one view is actually a mirror image.  I wanted the grace of the shapes relating to each other to determine their position.  The lower left view of the vertebra is painted actual size.

Well by the time I’d figured all this out, the owner was moving to Wisconsin.  She needed the bone back.  Usually I use the object as a reference throughout the painting process, but this was no usual painting.  Luckily I had the photos, and some imagination.

I continued.  I wanted to give the composition some movement and weightlessness, like the bone in its original environment (part of a living whale).  Also some character in each view.  So it could be seen as a unit or as a collection of individuals.  The swirling background is informed by water, light, kelp and windblown sand.

painting on linen

This painting is on linen.  I first used linen last year for Double Portrait, a painting of elk and antelope hip bones.  I love the feel of the brush on the linen, and I like the tight weave for painting bones.  Linen is much more expensive than canvas, and so I choose it carefully.

Here is a photo showing the under painting in progress. The under painting is done in grays mixed from ultramarine, burnt umber, raw sienna and white.

After drawing each view of the bone, I painted in the form and background in a layer of gray, called the under painting.

Over this goes the final color.  I used a limited palette to keep all the colors integrated.  For this painting I used blue, green, magenta, yellow and white.  The bone is lit slightly differently in each view, a nod to how light seems to shift in water and to keep it ‘moving’.  The brush strokes of the background were fun and loose, combining all the colors in beams of light and dark.


I sent a photo of the painting to the owner of the bone, who wrote back to me filling in the story:

“It is actually kind of an honor to have the whale bone memorialized, it is pretty fragile, the movers were even hesitant to pack it.  It belonged to a young man, who is a friend of my son’s, and he was moving to Amsterdam and he knew I loved it and left it for me.  Before that it was at his grandpa’s antique shop on the east coast.

When I told him you were writing the story, he told me:  ‘That’s really cool about the whale bone!  As far as the history of the bone;  my grandpa was a high school physics teacher. He always was collecting and saving everything. When he passed and we were cleaning out his house we found the whale bones in the garden. He lived in San Diego close to the beach. I imagine he found the bone on the beach and brought it home.’

It goes well here with Lake Michigan as its backdrop.  The lake turns from the blue greens like in your painting, to every shade of blue and gray, to brown when it’s stormy and the sand is churned up on the sandbars.”

Apposition of One is one of the most recent additions to the Bones Series.  It will be featured in the July 2017 exhibit, Two Books and the Art Within, a collaborative Mariposa Studio presentation with John LeFan (songs & poems) and guest Beverly Tharp (photography & essays).  I can’t wait to see Jim Zimmerman, who performs for the closing event on July 30, and his vibraphone in front of these bones.  Vibes & bones… and lotus photographs… and some terrific writing.
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