Thursday, September 11, 2008

Donald Roller Wilson's Painting Technique

It doesn't take but one decent glance at a Donald Roller Wilson painting to realize the meticulous technique involved in his renderings on canvas. Roller is truly a master of manipulating oil paint to achieve a photorealistic look. What's so amazing about how he does what he does is the fact that the scenarios he paints are so far-fetched and even borderline absurd, but he renders them with such life-like technique that you can't help but to find yourself believing in them. That is the mark of Roller's genius. I was able to dig up some quotes from Roller himself, cited from Wilson's older book "The Dreams of Donald Roller Wilson". I found a good one regarding his technique, and I wanted to share it with you here:

"I feel that there is always a danger that my work is too clear to be seen -- and I know that sounds like a paradox. But quite often it has been my experience that when even a 'trained eye' roams over the surface of my work, it is blinded by the technique -- doesn't see the message."

Trust me when I say, the message comes across loud and clear.

Roller actually paints "from life", using various props that he arranges like a retail store window display. He assembles these scenarios in his studio, and then trains a single light on the arrangement, giving it the dramatic shadowy look that it has (much like a Caravaggio painting), where it literally reminds you of a scene in a dimly lit stage play (Roller even adds curtains to many of his arrangements). As far as the actual painting technique goes, he literally follows in the traditions of the Old Masters. He paints on high quality hand-woven linen canvas, which is itself gessoed several times, sanded between applications, and then primed with three coats of white lead paint, which according to his website, takes one month's drying time between the applications. Being the type of person that I am, I would have a VERY hard time being patient enough to see a process like this through to completion. Once he takes care of the gessoing and priming of the canvas, he then creates an underpainting with oil paint thinned out with turpentine. It is from the basis of this underpainting that he gets a feel of the balance of light and shadow, as well as mass, for all of the different elements of his painting. The drying time for the underpainting phase is yet another month, and then he gets down to business, filling in the painting with oil paint, and then glazing it with transparent colors, which creates a depth and richness to the coloration of the painting. After this, he finally tops it off with a varnish to seal the painting and protect it.

So as you can tell, a lot of time and patience goes into each painting that Roller cranks out...much more patience than I ever believe I could develop. At the end of it all, the deliberateness of the technique is yet another testimony to the quality of Roller's work.

Here's another one of my absolute favorites, entitled "The Last Zeppelin Destroyed in the War, at Friedrichshafen":

Sorry for the smallness of the image, but it was VERY hard to find anything that had a decent resolution. This painting was done by Roller in 1976. It measures 87" high by 60" wide, so it's a pretty sizable canvas in real life. I have never seen it in real life, but I'm sure it would be breathtaking at that size. You know I have to include the text that underscores the title of this painting as well...which, like many of Roller's titles, reads like a nursery rhyme or a limerick:

The head of state has left his hat,
A queen has come to rule;
Her silver ship returning to the moon
She brought a drink a cow once sipped
When tricked inside a room;
Her hollow ship is silver--lined with tombs

Until next time...continue to enjoy the works of Donald Roller Wilson!