Underwater Dome: Painting Project #1 / by Vanessa Longacre-Wilcox

  Figure  1 : Underwater Dome at the Seattle Aquarium

Figure 1: Underwater Dome at the Seattle Aquarium

When my eldest son was born I quit my job to stay home and take care of him.  Actually, I quit my two jobs.  In the year before I got pregnant I had two jobs and I was in graduate school.  I liked to keep busy.  I liked to use my brain and plan projects and talk to people and multi-task and go to the bathroom by myself and generally be respected. 

Babies have no respect for you.  They love you, need you, adore you, think they are extensions of you, but they have no respect for you.  They don’t care about your “me time.”  You can’t go for a walk to cool down if they are being unreasonable, which at stages they almost always are. 

When I became a stay at home mom I wasn’t prepared for how isolating it would feel.  Going from an office setting, being around people all day to not exchanging words with anyone for hours was not something I had thought about when I quit my jobs.  The transition was very lonely.  There seemed to be endless hours in the day where I was by myself, and worse, I was in charge but completely at the mercy of my son’s schedule. 

On the flipside, being a stay at home parent thrust me into a new world.  If you can stay in the moment (which is hard to do because your adult mind is threatening to take over at every turn and make you check the clock and think about laundry or making dinner or taxes) being a parent begs you to explore childish things, to be silly, to slow down, and view the world as your child does, with a sense of wonder and humor.  

In this new world, my son and I discovered the Seattle Aquarium.  Not counting the ridiculous shenanigans involved in trying to get out of the house with a small child, we could be there in 12 minutes.  Once there, my son and I would wander until we’d get to our favorite place, the underwater dome.  We would usually arrive as evening was settling in, street lights would be switching on and shining through the water above us and because it is Seattle, rain would be falling making endless rings on the water.  Fish would be swimming all around.  Seaweed would sway.  It would be magical.  All of the loneliness would melt away because even though we were alone I would feel the vastness of being encompassed by an entire ecosystem.  In winter months, so late in the day, we could spend 20 minutes there by ourselves.  It felt like our special secret.

I knew being home with my son was a blessing, it was a privilege, but it was harder than I expected it to be.  On bad days, I would cry in the darkness of the dome, my son distracted by the scenery, the fish swimming by without judgment.  Other families would come through and I’d see parents getting through their days and it would help remind me that it was going to be okay. 

  Figure 2: Inspiration photo of the Underwater Dome

Figure 2: Inspiration photo of the Underwater Dome

I took many pictures watching the peaceful way the seaweed would sway.  This one photo (figure 2) always stood out for me, when I look at it I am transported to the magic and beauty of being there.  5 years and two more kids later, I still look at this picture with an enormous sense of gratitude for all the comfort those fish provided.

I had the idea that I wanted to paint the view from underneath the dome about six months ago.  I thought about putting it up in our family room.  I imagined having it as a backdrop for play time.   I liked the idea of having it as a talisman to help get through the day.  A visual cue that it is going to be alright. I also just plain wanted to make something beautiful and paint something that I admired.

I planned to make a large straightforward painting of the image from the photograph.  I was excited and tried printing the image out on my home printer to work from.  But the printer was running out of ink and the image didn’t print correctly.  Disappointed I sent the photo to print at Costco (BTW, I was surprised by what a good job Costco does for photo printing.)

  Figure 3: Ink jet print out

Figure 3: Ink jet print out

It took me a while to get to Costco to pick the photo up.  When I did pick it up something held me back from starting right away.  As I looked at the image, I wondered if the cement structure of the dome, which in real life I look past, would be too dominant in the painting.  If I painted a literal translation of the photo to canvas, would the cement read more as a prison block and less as a magical structure? 

The poorly printed paper image kept floating around the house and instead of discarding it I just kept moving it.  Something in me wouldn't let it go.  It had an ethereal quality.  The more I saw it, the more I responded to it.  And soon I decided it was the framework I was going to use to paint the painting.  I also decided that the painting would be abstract, more of a visual ode to the Aquarium than a literal representation.

THE PLAN:

Prepare workspace:  Sometimes I think having the space to create art is half the battle to actually creating it.  I had been on a roll painting-wise at the beginning of last year.  And then, HOUSE GUESTS!  Suddenly my “studio space” regained its status as a walk through from our downstairs bedroom to the office.   Slowly but surely my desk got taken over by a wide array of misfit items.  Ideally, I’d like to have my desk be an ART mess.  A place I never really have to fully clean up, that is always in the process of making a piece of art.  The more barriers I remove towards making a piece of art the higher the likelihood that I will actually do it.

Organize Supplies.  When I first got the idea for this painting I got a little ahead of myself.  Impulsively, I ran out to buy a canvas and a bunch of acrylic paint. Given how little time I have to paint I was looking to cut (time) corners and buy a pre-stretched canvas.  They didn’t have the exact size I wanted but I was so eager to get started that I didn’t care, I just bought the closest thing I could find.  When I got it home, after a heated negotiation with the physical boundaries of my car, I realized the aspect ratio for the painting that I wanted to do and the canvas that I had were off.  When I changed the scope of the painting to be abstract I decided to incorporate the white negative space of the paper into the painting and make the canvas work. 

  Figure 4: Graphed for sketching

Figure 4: Graphed for sketching

Graphing the photo and determining ratio.  If you've never used a grid before, the wiki Scale Drawings Using the Grid Method, does a really good job explaining the process.  The canvas that I used is 36x48 inches.  The printed photo (excluding white space) is 6x11 inches.  I decided to use a 4:1 scale.  The painting is not detail driven (no faces, for example) so I decided on using a larger grid.  I thought a 3/12 inch grid  would allow me enough detail for framework but give me flexibility and the ability to paint more fluidly. 

Get started. I prepared the canvas in three ways, I pre-painted the white borders on the top and bottom of the canvas, created my grid, and using the printout I drew a sketch of the painting.  After a unilateral ban on house guests (except for mother-in-laws who are always welcome and may be the only people reading this blog. Hi, Shirley!  Hi, Sherry!) it was time to paint!

  Figure 5: Sketched canvas

Figure 5: Sketched canvas

HOW IT WENT:

This was going to be abstract, going to be based off of the ink-jet disaster printout, right? Well, when I started to sketch the painting from the printout, I noticed a problem.  The dome structure was so faint that I couldn’t distinguish where the structure started and stopped. That felt important to me.  I printed out the image again, (with proper ink cartridges) and I used the new print out to supplement.  Soon I was mostly working off of the new printout and the more I did, the more attached to the deep blues I became.  I decided that I would use it for color and later go abstract but as I painted I enjoyed what was happening and left it.

As I was painting, I had a moment where I literally broke into a fit of giggles and couldn't stop. It dawned on me that in my intro post I had been talking about how my whole life I struggled feeling that I lacked talent because I couldn't paint like a photo and then I went and designed a 6 month project for the blog where I’d paint paintings from photos.  Oh subconscious, you are so hilarious.  Apparently, I’m still working that one out.

  Figure 6: Light fish version

Figure 6: Light fish version

And this painting DID help me work on it.  As I was painting from the photo, I realized the layout didn't make a very interesting painting.  (quick "told you so" from my mother beyond the grave).  The composition wasn’t working.  The problem was the fish (see figure 6.)  I actually loved the way the fish came out in this early draft of the painting.  Soft, peaceful fish, swimming high above.  But it was as if I had tacked on another painting to the right hand side of this painting.  I had to find a way to redistribute the composition.

To help me figure out what to do, I took a lot of pictures with my phone and studied them.  In a smaller format I find it easier to see where your eye goes first, where it gets stuck, and where it never visits.  I played with the composition, darkened the fish and the water and brought the seaweed in to distribute that color throughout the painting.  At one point, I tried to add a bunch of things to the bottom frame to try to even out the top.  In the original photo there is a fish swimming in the lower center frame so I tried to add him.  He looked silly.  So I removed him again. (He’s kind of a secret as you can still spot a little bit of his tail in the final version.)  

WHAT I LEARNED:

Most of my paintings in the last decade (or more) have been abstract so it was an interesting exercise for me to do something more literal.  My abstract work is emotion driven and what I paint truly emerges out of the process of painting it.  There is an ease to that style of painting that was not present with this project.  For this I had to do things like plan ahead and follow instructions which I had a strong resistance towards doing.  I noticed that my idea that I wouldn't be able to achieve the resemblance was influencing my desire to try.  Basically, I was afraid of failing.  To face that, I relied heavily on my plan and as I followed the steps I had laid out for myself I could see the painting come to life and that gave me confidence to continue.  The moment when I realized I had it, was pure joy.  It did not come out picture perfectly, I could very easily list for you all its flaws, but I won’t. Instead, I’m practicing appreciating what I did accomplish instead of what I didn’t.      

  Figure 7: Finished painting.

Figure 7: Finished painting.

Truth be told, I love this painting in a way that I haven't loved anything I've painted in years. It reaches the sentimental side of me in exactly the ways that I had hoped it would.  I felt so much gratitude as I painted, to the aquarium, to the fish, to the structural engineers who dreamt up the dome, even to the seaweed.  No, especially the seaweed.  A metaphor for life: Go with the flow.  

The last step was to hang the painting in the family room.  It did not have magical powers causing the children to share easily, play quietly, and clean up voluntarily, but it sure sets off Thomas the Train nicely and maybe one day it will pair well with respectable grown-up things.  When my two year old son sees it, he points at it and says with enthusiasm, "Mama's painting!" Which is about the best feeling ever.

  Figure 8: Hanging in the playroom

Figure 8: Hanging in the playroom