Oil Paint over Pinhole Photos: Surreal Voyages

Nature Walk, 12″ x 12″, oil paint over pinhole photos, Suzanne Edminster

Painting can take you to strange places. I offer these older paintings as a travelogue of a surreal journey through spontaneous image.

Some years ago  I mounted blown-up, cut-out photocopied images of my own pinhole photos on Masonite. I had a photo series of a small, two-inch Mummy, an Invisible Man model,  a Barbie doll, and a plastic toy lizard.  Keep an eye out for them, as they pop up in various combinations in all four paintings.

I varnished the black and white photocopy mounts with clear acrylic varnish as a protectant, letting it dry. I then covered each panel completely with oil paint.  The images disappeared. That was scary!  We love our figurative images, and to cover them makes us feel like we have lost our way .  But it is important to completely cover the surface, so you can’t see the original images any more. Just choose a few analogous colors to start.

Oil paint stays open, or wet, for quite a while.  Using a soft rag, I would rub parts back to the original photo, then add more paint, and repeat this, over and over, until new images started to form.  It was like watching a mysterious image develop.  I had no plan for the original mounts.  The images just appeared.  The first one was Eye Boat, below.  You can see the guts of the Invisible Man, and the lizard became a sort of surfboard.  They are led by the Eye Boat–led by the eye, or vision–which tows three fish.  Maybe they’re the next three paintings.

Eye Boat, 12″ x 12″, photos under oil paint, Suzanne Edminster

Okay, I had a start: two figures in a sort of journey.  The second painting was Nature Walk, at the top of the blog.  A giant gorilla peered over the horizon at the two small figures enjoying a stroll, and the Mummy got a cigarette.  I loved the thick, greasy, slippery feel of the oil paint, and the sharp smell.  Shapes and images surfaced and submerged.  It was mesmerizing.  It took a long, long time.  Apply, rub away.  Add, subtract, change, cover, lose it, reclaim it: hide-and-seek with images.

The Sacrifice, 12: x 12″, oil paint over pinhole photos, Suzanne Edminster

The Sacrifice is the darkest of the series.  The couple becomes androgynous, with the partner becoming a sort of butler or servant.  A table appeared in a desert.  Hooves and feet were scratched into cartouche forms. A smiling cow head appears on a table with two glasses of red wine. This has a forsaken feeling; I thought of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. Motifs kept repeating: the high horizon, the pillars, the animal forms.  I was dreaming in paint.

Belly Thoughts came last.  A world of landscape appears inside a cow, and the Mummy has become a sort of householder or landlord, surveying his domain. There’s a snake in the garden, though…

Belly Thoughts, 12″ x 12″, oil paint over pinhole photos, Suzanne Edminster

These turned out to be important paintings to me. I think they may have actually foretold my future: a kind of before-sight rather than hindsight. Obliterating the image is very freeing, and moves the painter rapidly toward increased abstraction.  Meaning won’t be lost; it reasserts itself constantly .  You never have to worry about that.

Mythic notes: These were a bit like the Metaphorcards we construct at Wavy Gravy’s Camp Winnarainbow for adults. I’ll be teaching there this year, assisting Laura Foster Corben, and clowning  around with Susan Cornelis.  You might want to show up too.

Studio notes: This is my favorite method of painting with oils, because it fully exploits their oily quality and reluctance to dry. Oil paints have a mystery and resonance with film– all those chemicals!  (Black and white photos used to be colorized with oil paints.) I did these during the last class that Holly Roberts ever taught at UC Santa Cruz. The painting studios had a view of the Pacific, and I had a key to the studios to come early and stay late. She taught us how to paint in oils without turps, using linseed oil as a medium and baby oil as a brushcleaner.   Holly’s work is superb: mysterious, intelligent,  passionate, and completely expert. I am grateful for the series of classes I took with her.

3 thoughts on “Oil Paint over Pinhole Photos: Surreal Voyages

  1. Your wondrous world of personal mythology. . .it’s all familiar and yet thoroughly odd, as dreams always are, particularly Belly Thoughts, but maybe that’s because I’ve spent the morning in the garden and done a bit of unearthing. . .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s