Studio Diaries: A Summer in Saint-Raphael
Searching in small spaces, lingual attachments, and lots of phthalo.
By Julie Kim
It has been extra quiet the past few days. I am miles away from mindlessly indulging in Berlin, Zurich, and London for two weeks with my roommates. The Laderach Swiss chocolates; the sunbathers in the praline sidewalks eating macaroni and applesauce and aperitifs from menus we cannot read; hanging my limbs off the edges of bridges; riverside concrete congregations with beer bottles and cigarette butts and swans that drift down into specks of sugar dust between tunnels of towers; biking through strangers’ breaths at midnight, just barely missing hairs and handbags and brass knobs of big blue doors. That season is now gone.
I lay around on the various seats and surfaces in the house in the morning––the scarlet velvet sofa, the plastic chair with the weird back in the kitchen, the navy couch with the itchy sequined cushions––until I eventually decide to be upright and peel open the mahogany curtain at the front door, let in the southern-France sunlight, and take the five-minute walk to my studio in 90-degree heat. I descend down the hill, cross one big green crosswalk—where usually I hesitate mid-road because I’m afraid of getting mercilessly hit from not understanding pedestrian-car etiquette here—jaywalk one last street, then make my way up a mild hill with abandoned sidewalk furniture, into the grey and red L’Ecole de Danse building that houses the small, brightly lit, serene ceramics studio that I have been working out of as an artist-in-residence since the beginning of June. At the end of each day, I vigorously scrub a sufficient amount of oil paint out of my brushes with bristols en route to destruction, close up the windows, lock the door, and walk all the way back up my massive hill of a street. I no longer pant for breath; my strides are no longer broken.
Mornings have been filled with yogurt—I try a different one every few days from the collection I’ve reaped from the store—and evenings with bread, cheese, and meat. Today, I finished the last of my Alpro mango tub. I picture my work-in-progress paintings in my head and think about what I’ll add.
On my first day, I claimed a room for myself and made a sketch of every single painting I planned to complete. The second day, I brought home seven canvases from the art store. These French canvases had black nails hammered in at the sides, and I didn’t quite know what to do about them. The third day, I immediately lathered all my canvases in various colors of underpaintings. I was going in with a deliberate battle plan.
Lime green for the base of Kate at the Louvre (temporary title), yellow for the portrait of my grandparents, pink for Lawrence, yellow ochre for myself in Berlin, and now, a lightened-up phthalo blue and pink and yellow for my two most recent pieces.
I’ve never painted for this long in a day, or this frequently (six to seven hours a day, back to back, every day of the week), and it feels good. I am cycling through six pieces—doing details, touch-ups, and background revisions on rotation. I was an indestructible machine at first, but now I have started to slow down with exhaustion. I feel like a mechanized one-robot assembly line on its last leg of battery. The ideas I enthusiastically sketched out on my first day are the ones I’ve taken and run with, expecting seven masterpieces by the end of the residency. Now, I’m at a moment of doubt. I flip through the pages of “Seen Through Others” by Xinyi Cheng, which I have been referencing this whole time. I scroll through Instagram feeds of artists I admire. None of them can throw me a lifeline. I’m on my own because I’m in this for myself. I’ve got to figure out who I am in these paintings, and who I want to be.
(right) The Midnight Fire, Xinyi Cheng
This is Kate at the Louvre. (Working title: Now I Know Why My Father Takes Smoke Breaks)
It’s almost finished, with just touches of detail to add. I love the way the lime green underpainting illuminates every element in the scene. It is a color I’ve never used before. The way I dragged the dark blues and blacks on top of the green is also a newfound technique––close up, it looks spiky and messy, but adds a silhouette like magic to the entire piece.
Are You Looking for Love?
I kept a black and white photo of my grandparents in my camera roll, hoping I could paint it when the time was right. It did not take much deliberation to plan their outlines onto one of my canvases. I wanted to capture my grandfather’s sly smile and the gentle presence of my grandmother in her pigtail plaits and traditional hanbok. I’m content, but also fighting with the colors. I want an element of shock, but I also want my grandparents to breathe in a quiet encompassment. And I want it to be a hushed, earnest love story.
I feel trapped under the crude density of my paints and the gradually decaying life of my brushes that once had single tips and no unruly hairs. I don’t have a paint-thinning medium here, only a sticky yellow gelatin that makes the paint easier to apply to surfaces. Today, I am working more on the portrait of me in Berlin. Significantly sizing down my canvas has taught me that brush sizes need to come down too, especially if I want to retain seamless paint application and attention to detail. I started this piece with no regard for this, with ultramarine blue carelessly patted down to form my jean jacket.
So I went nose-to-nose with the Julie inside the painting. I darkened the shadows, lightened the highlights, and lined my jacket’s details with a fine brush dipped in white paint. The change in dimension was stunning. Rosy red stains for my fingers and my knee. Electric blue nails. I am still in conversation with the background figures, they are neither here nor there, like my decisiveness that flickers in and out of the darkness. Eyes, hair, and shirts, stained into the yellow ochre air of the bar. I hope that they live and chatter behind me, but are also a second away from evaporation.
Out of Season in London
I burrowed myself deep into Cheng’s color palettes when I pictured the light sea green filling the surface of this piece. I love pairing greens with pinks, so I chose a pale pink underpaint. I didn’t just want this to be any portrait of a shirtless Lawrence in jeans. There had to be a strangeness, a step into a liquified netherworld, where only atmosphere and mirrors and jeans exist. And, of course, the tulips, which are out of season in London summer.
Lawrence in the mirror, with the nape of his neck and back of his head, and wisps of paint to fill in his stomach and jeans, carries the sentiment of his life much more than foreground Lawrence. I liked this shift of reality, although it was unintentional. There is a very stand-still, doll-like attribute to the center figure. The world inside the mirror, which I spent merely ten minutes on, somehow moves––it is the only part of this scene that seems to be outside of what feels like a freeze-frame.
Remains of Drowning in a Past Life
I’ve been staring at my tube of phthalo blue since the day I purchased it. I’m wary of phthalos. Phthalo green stains any and everything it touches with no remorse. Nevertheless, I decided I should make use of phthalo blue, the only full bottle in my collection of shriveled paints. There is a silky and airy but resilient quality about the raw pigment. The more I layer, the darker and more pigmented it becomes. It casts the piece into deeper shadows. When thinned out, it is a beautiful, electric hue. I had been waiting to paint a self portrait from a selfie I took in bed, with my hair sprawled out and my face sunk into a vacuous stare. Previously, I had noted to myself that I wanted to paint numerous small portraits of people with the faces blown up on the canvas, each in bright monotone or duotone palettes. This would be the first of the venture. The entire painting took exactly an hour. I’ve never painted with such ease in my life. I owe it to the phthalo blue.
I’m surrounded by the sea this season. The southern coast of France goes on for miles, with the water surrounding every horizontal city strip. I go to the beach with people because it is a celebrated summertime custom, but I’m truthfully scared of the sea. The wild hair and the blue monochrome palette was only a coincidence, but I like the duality of my environment in this painting. I could be in a blue vacuum, anywhere, underwater, or while sinking into my sheets. I’m scared of drowning in both.
Accompanying orange portrait
I painted this orange piece immediately after the blue self portrait as a second trial of monochrome. Needless to say, the orange lacks the body, vibrancy, and depth of the blue. While I only utilized white to lighten the phthalo, I struggled choosing a highlight tone and a shadow tone for the orange. This canvas might materialize into something entirely different in three months as I search for more paint pigments that can serve as a solo palette.
June 22: Impromptu trip to Musée Matisse and Musée Marc Chagall in Nice
Some inspiration for color study and ways of manipulating figurative scenes:
I keep an ongoing list of potential painting titles in the Notes app on my phone. I hated the idea of naming a piece before it even began, but the way that I am approaching my body of work now has become entirely different––my work is so reliant on a story, which relies on words and phrases to come to life in tandem to the image. I am drawn to a linguistic side of understanding and communicating the feelings, scents, sounds, and bodily awareness that my figures, scenes, and colors used to take up on their own. I feel even more in touch with harmonizing words and feelings through writing about my art process and practice here.
The Things He Left
“The things he left” has been on this list for many months. In the context of my life, it refers to what my father left after nights of having a drink in the living room––bottles, stains, caps––and the objects are embraced by a new morning, where the sun turns the residents of the dark into something unthreatening and rather sweet in the way that they are inanimate. Finishing Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, on writers and alcoholism, might have been the final push of inspiration to open the door to this subject matter. In the context of everything and anything else in the world, it could mean the remains of any kind, objects that were once a part of someone’s blood and veins and character now turned inanimate, mementos, surfaces of spaces and places that hold a part of us, and maybe always will, even after we let go.
After being on a phthalo blue high, I covered this canvas in a lightened shade. The dimensionality of the room comes to life after I darken the back wall, paint in shadows, and fixate the light source, which is currently a mess of yellows and pinks.
Paris Street Scene (still trying to come up with a title)
Paris was wonderful because I could observe everybody in their leisurely state right out on the sidewalk, where they ate, drank, and talked for hours. It was almost like seeing someone inside of their home, but taken out into the daylight instead. I watched every table at every restaurant. It was like moving through a street in a car or watching a movie from a life-size screen. They go on eating, drinking, and talking forever with no admission of your presence.
I cut and pasted together different elements of many photos in my camera roll at numerous restaurant corners. I underpinned the left side of the canvas pink, and the right side a glowing primary yellow. I built a cool (phthalo) blue on top of the pink, which eventually became the shadows cast onto the buildings on the street. It chilled down the left side of the canvas in a very summer-afternoon-in-the-shade kind of way. On one of my walks through the city, I snapped a picture of an old bearded man sitting alone, and a few minutes later, a young man in a blue t-shirt, also sitting alone. I decided to paste them together. It pays homage to my piece, “The man and his hour,” in a scaled-down way. I want the stare in the silent relationship to be provoking.
A new experiment: using a palette knife to mold the cobblestone sidewalk and also carve away the individual stones.
Good Love Comes from All Places
This is the last piece I started. Emma and I outside our freshman dorm, embracing before I leave with all my belongings in my parents’ minivan the week of winter break. This is an embrace I’ve been waiting to paint. It is not what I hoped would arise from the image, but the blues and greens took me to a serendipitous sanctuary, reminiscent of our trip to the Utah Salt Flats.
Sometimes, I wonder if I am going backwards, retrograding, losing all of my stockpiled skills and taste and abilities to actualize my ideas. The truth is, I do not think more than half of these pieces qualify as finished. I feel nothing from some of them, which is unexpected, angering, and disappointing. I could blame it on the scale, or, “it isn’t dramatic enough,” or I could blame it on how little focus I spent on each individual piece to develop it to its full potential because of my rotating process, juggling seven at once. They lack tension, focus, and weight.
I might leave some pieces the way that they are now forever. I tell myself otherwise, but I have no intent on continuing to work on some of these. I imagined that I would come out of the residency with more grandeur. I think I instead created a sampler platter, where I tried new combinations of colors, new ways to sculpt faces, and new relationships between background and figure. I thought to myself, I don’t even know how I paint anymore. How is it that I actually move my brush to create skin now?
Nevertheless, all trials become growth.
July 7: Flight back to JFK
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in hand, a speed-read within 24 hours while I, too, am on the road.
It feels weird to fold away used palettes and throw them in the trash, bandage up paintings, wipe away croissant flakes from the table and floor, the remains of life once in action. I am leaving behind the route of bus line 10 and how to walk into town or walk (over hills, ascending staircase, meet pizza place at intersection and crawl inside black railings) to the beach with red rocks. The shopping cart token on the table with the black tablecloth, heart of palm unopened still in the fridge. Lay the blanket over the pillows, close the door, say goodbye.
Beaches make me nauseous, and beach towns make me melancholy.
In the fall, I’ll have a studio on campus for my senior thesis. Back in New York, I can take up big canvases again––bigger than I’ve ever worked with. I’m talking wall-size. For now, I’m making new sketches, anticipating abundance for myself and holding my aspirations tight for unleashing in the fall. I am also writing every day. Words that hold a future for the stories I paint.
I’m rushing in and ruminating slow, on the themes of family, moments inside the household, encounters with my mother and father that are embedded into my identity, and the longing I have for romance, any and all––in the way that loved ones laugh, cry, and smize, the way strangers are temporary in permanent places, the events that ensued at my dining room table, for better or for worse, and the way people touch; romance in the magic of lighting at dusk, dawn, midnight when it slithers down skin in stories of fiction and fact, in the thought loops and snow globes of stopped time where conversations, silence, and fantastical dreams live. I want to paint people, large, unavoidable undeniable figures that halt you with eye contact, and tell you to live in their world where colors stain odors and movements melt the sounds of ours.
Some new works in progress back in my basement in New Jersey