How It’s Made: Emily Piccirillo Paints the Sky

13 Dec

When we picture artists creating their work, we often think of a mustachioed Frenchman with his easel and paint palette along the side of a Paris avenue or an art school grad flinging paint at a canvas in her Brooklyn loft. In truth, there are as many approaches to creating art as there are artists. Even within the realm of painting, the number of techniques used is staggering. Local artist Emily Piccirillo’s paintings of the sky (oftentimes framed with the branches of winter trees) make use of an idiosyncratic technique in their creation that we think will fascinate as much as her entrancing work does.

“As I prepare for each new piece, I need to decide on the basic features of the imagery I want to create because they correspond with the choice of materials as I get rolling – the external dimensions of the grid, the size of the openings, the type and width of the round steel rod, the handling of the corners of the frame and the length of the legs, the weight of the canvas and size(s) of the panels, and the color and thickness of the cord.

I approach the pieces as double-sided paintings and handle the materials at every step with both surfaces in mind – the sky imagery painted in oil on the front in relation to panels of vivid fields of color in acrylic on the reverse.  Since these works stand off the wall, the ambient tone reflects back and incorporates the installation wall as the third surface.

Gaps between the panels and the grid capture light, freeing color from form.  The panels cast shadows, converging figure with ground and enhancing the sense of optical illusion.  Multiple gradations occur at once and change with the surrounding light.  The pieces take on transitive properties and hover between painting and sculpture.

I initially began this body of work using readymade construction sheets of medium gauge steel wire remesh (meant to reinforce concrete).  Now, I have both stainless steel and carbon steel armatures fabricated to specification.  I polyurethane the carbon steel to make sure the rust is sealed.

Next I cut canvas to either identical or varying sizes for the openings and tie them into the corners using needle and waxed nylon cord, selecting white or black, thin or thick, for each piece.  For larger openings I determine the spacing at either even or uneven intervals of additional pieces of cord along the edges.

I may rotate the knots behind the panels to conceal the ends.  With this variation with white cord against white walls, the panels seem to float.

Alternately, I might have the ends of black cord extend beyond the confines, breaking boundaries between real and represented.  Sometimes I merge these extending ends of the cords with tree branches in the painting.  The cord emphasizes formal and physical tension, literally tying together the fabricated and natural worlds.

Both sides of the panels are gessoed many times, using an electric hand sander in between coats to smooth the surfaces.

Next I paint the panels as a single continuous image, attending to each square as its own image as well.  The front involves multiple layers of oil paint, many being glazes to increase the play of light and color.  The reverse is much quicker to complete since the color field effect is simpler.

Most recently I have been using leather punches to create patterns of round holes or a matt knife for long slits in the canvas surface, introducing another challenge to pictorial convention and further activating the reflected color as elements in the images.

I keep multiple pieces going at once, usually four or five, allowing them to gestate and cue me about best next steps.  I keep a couple notebooks of ideas that are still in very early formative stages.  An art professor said to me once, ‘Always approach each with rigor and wonder,’ and that still helps to remember since every exchange is unique.  Each piece has its own pacing and attitude as it manifests.  They can’t be rushed; patience is key.  By giving them lots of time, I can study them in different kinds of light and times of day, revealing areas of potential I had yet to realize.  Some pieces happen quickly and cooperate easily; others take over a year or two and it feels like an epic battle. There are even times they seem to change all on their own, like they’re possessed by some strange force and I don’t even recognize them when I go back to work on them.  I spend a lot of time sitting and staring at each one.  Finally I varnish the front once the oil paint has dried about a year.

I never sign the front of a piece.  I don’t understand why I would interrupt the image with my name.  I put it on the back with the date.  The titles happen in lots of ways – occasionally they pop into my mind at odd moments; sometimes I watch words as I’m reading something, looking for a clue.  At other times friends will give me their associations and they stick. Once in a while I change the title of a piece, like it finally matured into its true name.  I keep a collection of words and phrases that I like as I find them.  Some of the titles I can’t explain – they just fit; others have long stories that keep evolving. ”

Thanks to Emily for providing the wonderful pictures and text to document her creative process and for allowing us a rare glimpse of the goings-on in the artist’s studio. Read about Emily’s work featured in the Washington Sculptors Group’s 2011 “Sculpture Now” exhibit at the Artery Plaza Gallery in Bethesda in this article in the Gazette.


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