Rebecca Allan: Alla Prima / by Heather Topcik

On Sunday, December 14th, artist Rebecca Allan gave a talk about her work and a demonstration of her technique at the Society for Domestic Museology. The idea was that she would discuss her approach to painting while completing a small piece that she would then proceed to hang on our wall. It was our first time showcasing a painter and a unique opportunity to observe an artist at work, a concept that Rebecca herself suggested. I loved the idea of her "performing" a painting, which she described beautifully in the invitation:

The afternoon of the opening, Rebecca arrived with a lovely selection of paints and tools: brushes of all kinds, a palate of acrylic color, gold leaf, and powdered pigment for egg tempera (along with oyster shells for mixing it).  She set them out on the coffee table, transforming our living room into an alchemist's laboratory.  My 8-year old hovered around the periphery, curious about the array of implements and was clearly astounded to see real gold leaf up close!

Around 4:00, guests started to arrive.  One of the best parts of hosting these events has been the eclectic mix of attendees, many of whom I am meeting for the first time when they arrive.  We mingled for a few minutes over crostini, kale salad, wine and cheese before we settled in for the performance, which began with an introductory slide show.

Rebecca's work is abstract but rooted in the elements of landscape: the way rivers carve out land, the interplay of light on glaciers and mountains, the lines forged by branches as they grow. Drawn to dramatic geography, she has worked with rich material: the mountains and glaciers of the Pacific Northwest, the Hudson River Valley, and, her most recent inspiration, the fjords of Norway. Her paintings are evocations of those relationships between water, light and earth, and her gestures and mark-making clearly reference the natural world. 

Though trained as an oil painter, Rebecca works mostly with water-based paints because they dry more quickly and are easier to layer, allowing her to build sophisticated colorscapes.  Often working en plein air (outside), she will make quick sketches on site that can be taken back to the studio and developed into more elaborate pieces ranging from large wall paintings to smaller works on paper. Recently, she has been collecting exhibition cards she receives in the mail - the kind that fold out into a panorama - and painting directly onto them as a starting point.

This approach to landscape painting falls into the transcendental American landscape tradition that includes painters Rebecca refers to as her artistic ancestors: Charles Burchfield, Joan Mitchell, and Neil Welliver.  She is also influenced by the Renaissance masters, both in technique and in her desire to invent a new cosmological landscape, as she describes it.  This is evident in her tondos, circular works that were included in the Crossroads Project, a collaboration undertaken with her partner, composer Laura Kaminsky, the Fry String Quartet and scientist Robert Davies.  These circular works are some of my personal favorites.  With no orientation to what is up or down, they seem to hover in space and make visible the fragility of our environment.

Here are two beautiful examples of Rebecca's work, and much more can be found on her website: rebeccaallan.com

After the slide show, Rebecca produced some postcard-size works-in-process to complete while demonstrating two techniques she often uses: paint-peel collage and egg tempera. Paint-peel collage involves painting acrylic on glass and peeling off the dried color swatches that can then be layered on other painting. It is a combination of intention and serendipity that is mesmerizing to watch. For the egg tempera demonstration, Rebecca separated an egg, using just a bit of the yolk in an oyster shell and mixing it with powdered lapis lazuli, a bright blue semi-precious stone that was prized by the Renaissance masters. She also demonstrated gold leaf technique, using static electricity created by rubbing her dry paintbrush on my daughter's head to pick up the delicate, paper-thin sheets of gold and apply them to her painting.

An hour later, Rebecca had completed two small paintings, which she placed inside two frames she had hung earlier that afternoon. Watching her work gave me new insight into her larger body of paintings and how layering and judicious decisions culminate in a finished work with a unique language.  

The two paintings on our wall are like tiny windows onto larger worlds.  When you get up close, you see landscapes that seem to go on for miles.  Over the holiday break, my older daughter has been working on a watercolor painting that reflects what she has been learning about in her middle school art class: abstract painting and color theory. It is such a privilege to have these two paintings to look at and talk about when we sit at the table and make our own versions of landscape studies.  I'm looking forward to a winter of painting studies around our kitchen table while we look to our two new "windows" for inspiration.