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Ten Covid Paintings

I took up painting in 1999 while writing a historical novel called As Above So Below: A Life of Peter Bruegel about my favorite painter. I wanted to see how it felt to paint, and quickly I fell in love with the medium. I used acrylics at first. Later I came to prefer oils as they seemed richer and deeper. And then I returned to acrylics for their ease of use, and for the brightness of their hues. My studio remains the same: a plastic chair and table in our back yard, with my paints and brushes in a knapsack.

I enjoy the exploratory and non-digital nature of painting, and the luscious mixing of the colors. Sometimes I have a specific scenario in mind. Other times I don’t think very much about what I’m doing I just paint and see what comes out. After I’ve finished a rough first version of a painting, I’ll polish and tweak it through several iterations. I’m never in a rush to finish. I like exploring these better worlds.

My pictures are often realistic in that they contain recognizable objects, but fantastic in their use of heightened colors, cartoony simplifications, and odd scenarios. The genre is sometimes called pop surrealism. Some of my pictures seem to tell a story. The stories may relate to my novels, or they may be free-floating parables, ambiguous, with their precise meanings unknown.

You can get more details about my art on my Paintings page.

Today, I’m assembling ten of my paintings from the Covid years 2020-2021. (I number my paintings in the order painted, and not all of them are included here, so you’ll see jumps in the numbering.)

181: Pandemic #1: Infection. Acrylic, 30″ x 24″, March, 2020.

In December, 2019, I had the lenses of my eyes surgically replaced by soft plastic lenses. My own lenses had gotten cloudy and dark over the years. I was delighted by how rich colors became, seen through new eyes. Maybe I’d been painting with such bright colors because my vision was dim? I held back from painting for three months, and in March, 2020, spurred on by the onset of the Covid plague, I started again. Turned out that now I was using even brighter colors! Working at a fever pitch, I painted a Pandemic triptych. The initial panel, Infection, shows a tumble of heedlessly festive micro-critters, spotted with itchy dots to suggest disease.

182: Pandemic #2: Panic Acrylic, 30″ x 40″, March, 2020.

In Panic, I went wild, hitting a strong abstract-expressionist style, with super-intense colors. I created some delicious shades of orange by mixing cadmium red and the lesser-known diarylide yellow. In all three of the Pandemic panels, I started by setting blobs of paint from my palette onto a damp blank canvas, along with gobs of heavy gel medium. And then I freely smeared, going for gestural brush strokes, and not letting the colors mix together and get muddy. To bring order, I outlined choice passages of action painting, and filled the extra parts of the canvas with flat colors. I think Panic looks, overall, a bit like a face with holes in it. But some of the smaller areas look like faces as well. Those two pink patches at the bottom might be a hapless Covid victim’s lungs. Or buttocks. Or shoulders. Or neck. Hard to be sure exactly what’s going on…and that makes it interesting.

183: Pandemic #3: Peace. Acrylic, 30″ x 24″, March, 2020.

For Peace, the third panel of Pandemic, I wanted a sense of recovery. As before, I smeared around some blobs of paint from my palette, and then I outlined them, and added fields of violet and orange. The central shape is perhaps a bit like a holy baby or, looked at more abstractly, like the famous mathematical form known as the Mandelbrot Set. I was of course deluded in my hope of peace coming soon.

184: Hazmat Spring. Acrylic, 40″ x 30″, April, 2020.

This was my fourth pandemic painting. It’s thematically inspired by Botticelli’s Spring, but with the person wearing a hazmat suit. S/he might be me or my wife enjoying a rare Covid-era outing, or maybe the figure is the cheerful neighbor who was trimming her hillside with a sickle and a weed whacker, right adjacent to our back yard, which is where I paint. I started with overall action smears, like I’d been doing, then cropped down the marks to form odd, vaguely medieval plants. The flowers of course fulfill the rebirth motif of spring.

188: Cells Eat Viruses. Acrylic, 28″ x 22″, May, 2020.

At this point, with growing hopes of a Covid vaccine, I had a vague, inaccurate notion of healthy blood cells killing off viruses by eating them—and I painted it. Cheerful round cells, and the viruses looking like stick-and-ball molecules. Nice colors, lively action, happy feeling. Almost like a Mardi Gras crowd! If only.

199: Zoom Meeting. Acrylic, 24″ x 18″, December, 2020.

By the time I painted Zoom Meeting, we’d been under Covid lockdown for nine months, and one of my few social interactions was to attend Zoom meetings. I was taken with the look of the Zoom screen, and I’d play with the layout during the meeting. Here we see an underlying “speaker view” with a “grid view” overlaid upon it, with part of the grid offscreen. I like how the speaker also appears in the grid, and that she has a window behind her looking out onto the “real” world. There’s a sense of multiple realities. That’s me in the top center, of course, with my beloved bookcase of my published editions. Some users show static photos of themselves instead of live images, and the coiffed woman in the center is one of those. And of course we have an alien.

203: Invaders. Acrylic, 28″ x 22″, May, 2021.

I created the background of Invaders one by “stamping” the canvas with the still-wet palette paper I used for a previous painting. It made a nice, mysterious pattern resembling what an SF writer might call a subspace continuum. It needed critters, and I thought of a flock of invaders. Kind of like eyeballs. Or maybe Covid viruses. Or maybe something worse..

204: Escaping Death. Acrylic, 40″ x 30″, June, 2021..

Soon after Invaders, things did get worse, but not due to Covid. I had a vein burst inside my stomach, and I nearly bled to death. A surgeon stapled the vein closed, and I needed a transfusion of four pints of blood. Then I was better. I had some heavy visionary dreams in the hospital. I saw Death as a shadowy figure with a helmet. And I saw the afterlife as an “underside” of the world, with the underside covered in shifting white fuzz. And I had a vision of returning to life in the form of a glowing image atop my sheet. I kept revising the shapes in that image, and ended up with a woman warrior. A heroine fending off Death, possibly on her way to escaping into a pool that resembles her shield. Escaping Death seemed important to me, and in my somewhat desperate, I began to think of it as a talisman with healing powers. Like a Tibetan sand painting. Who knows. Oh, and what about that big eye? Well, I like painting eyes, and it was fun to shape this one like a torpedo. Maybe it’s the Cosmic One. And the duality between the inner and outer skewed frames on the painting and on the image—that reflects my notion of there being a hyperdimensional “underside” of our living, daily world.

214: My Back Yard. Acrylic, 28″ x 22″, November, 2021.

I got better, but there’s still plenty to worry about. When I can, I focus on my immediate surroundings. Like our backyard. I like old paintings that illustrate proverbs that have been forgotten. Unknown parables. In this context, I think of three works by Peter Bruegel the Elder: Peasant and Bird Nester, his sinister drawing Beekeepers, and his late career Misanthrope . As I mentioned above, I once wrote historical novel about Bruegel’s life, and I still think about him a lot. Making a new painting of an unkown parable on your own is, I would say, a type of Surrealism. In My Back Yard I started with a scene from my backyard, and added a squirrel, two chickens, and three somehow symbolic-looking bumblebees. Plus a cool towel with a mandala design. And a woman, perhaps my wife, who’s perhaps hanging the towel, or perhaps painting something on the back of it. And deliberately with no explanation. The lost parable of the towel!

215: Mr. Gray. Acrylic, 24″ x 18″, November, 2021.

Here I’m just thinking about paint. Mr. Gray is a little like M. C. Escher’s images of tiled-together creatures. But I made Mr. Gray more random and irregular. In grade-school my friends and I would play a game of drawing a squiggly shape on a piece of notebook paper, and your fellow player would have to make it into an animal or a person. Reallly any shape at all can be a critter if you stare at it long enough. It’s just a matter of figuring out where to put the dot for the eye. The one human form here is “Mr. Gray” himself. And maybe he’s having these colorful visions. I was also thinking of the Bob Dylan song “Idiot Wind” that opens with the line, “They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy.” To me this line represents Dylan toppling the old regime and running off with the country’s youth. Taking them somewhere pleasant and colorful. And becoming the new Mr. Gray.

For further info, see my Paintings page. Or check out my book of my paintings, Better Worlds, available as paperback and as a free online PDF.

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