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Art with John Pugh

By December 24, 2021Uncategorized

I did a brave thing. 

After my mural project with Colfax Canvas, the social media algorithm gods started suggesting new peeps, on the scene, for me to follow. @artofjohnpugh really stood out! I followed him and went through his timeline to discover a ton of huge, trompe l’oeil (French for “deceive the eye”) murals, across the country.

I gave his posts multiple hearts, and it I seemed to have gotten his attention, because the next day, he sent me a message.

I was really curious. He’s been doing these huge murals that are highly rendered and realistic with a crew of sorts. So, I reached out. To my surprise, he invited me to come out and work with him! “I’ll teach you everything I know” he said. I felt like I’d won the lottery. 

We spoke on the phone, a few times, and decided that I’d visit during the month of December. On the 4th of that month, I threw some things into my car and drove 19 hours to Ashland, OR, to work and to learn.

I’m not gonna lie, I was pretty nervous. He said that I had options for where to sleep, but then I thought “does he live in a peaceful household?” and “how many hours a day will I be working?” and “what kind of mattress will I be sleeping on?!”… all legitimate questions, that I did not ask.

Entering Ashland was like descending to the bottom of a cloud lake. Quiet, dimly lit and damp (especially compared to the high desert)! I arrived at John’s residence and jumped out of my car on wobbly, road-trip legs to give him a hug, as he stepped out of his house to greet me.

He’s a bit older than I anticipated (I don’t know why a “30 year career” didn’t clue me in). My first impression was that he’s a sweet “old hippie”. His wife is gentle and easy going and keeps a lovely home. They put me up in a private space, their backyard cottage, which offered me the reassurance of privacy and escape. I found the firm mattress reasonable, especially after a couple of nights. My biggest fears were abated.

We headed to the studio, as soon as I dropped my things. It was literally two blocks away from the house. The four thousand square foot space includes an office, workshop, classroom, loft and lounge. The largest portion of the floorpan is the studio itself, with 20’ high ceilings, scaffolding along two walls and murals, in progress.

You might be asking yourself, how murals are being painted in a studio. Well, that’s the trick; something that he figured out, once upon a time in the 90s, and has capitalized on since. His process makes it possible to apply pre-painted murals to smooth substrates, treated with oil primer, in a way that makes them indecipherable from murals painted on location.

Pretty quickly, I got a small glimpse into John’s process, by helping him tape an edge and then stretch a canvas on a wall. I met his part-time help, both paid and volunteer, painting sections of a huge mural for a dispensary in the Bay Area that they call the “plasma portals”. I watched as one volunteer worked, in the light of a projection. Another glimpse into the process.

The next day, I was first introduced to the tools of the trade with a demo on two-color shadow edges, gradient blends and fan blends. The processes for each were completely new to me. Painting blurry edges in oil paint is pretty forgiving, so I could get away with just winging it. But the drying time for acrylic is fast, so a solid method was needed. What I learned is something that I can take with me for work of all sizes, including my oil paintings.

It was a great start, but unfortunately, we didn’t do much more than that in the studio, for the first week of my stay. John had a lot of personal business to attend to, some of which I helped him with. But then once we got into his routine, he didn’t make it into the studio until 5pm, most days. We’d brake for dinner around 7:30 and not come back until 9:30 or 10pm. In my regular life, I’m used to getting ready for bed at that hour, so it was a shift that I wasn’t fully able to make. Once I got used to it, I was able to push through until about 1am, on average… although John would have preferred if I had stayed there with him until 3 or 4 in the morning.

So, with all of the extra time, I spent my days exploring Ashland and hanging out at coffee shops, this one in particular (I highly recommend their Kenyan single origin drip!).

About a week in, I got antsy and I asked to be put on a project. The main active “plasma portal” mural, already had too many people working on it, causing some troublesome inconsistencies. At first, he thought that he’d have me work on a figure for it, taking advantage of what I focus on, in my own work. But he didn’t have any figure designs prepared. So, instead, we decided to work on “the train”, a project that had been on hold since he lost the help of a previous volunteer.

The twenty foot tall mural is based on the Sacramento Northern1005, a train built in 1912. At first, I was given some basic supplies and left to my own devices, to find the differences between a photo of the train and what was already on the wall, put there by a previous volunteer. John thanked me for my willingness to “just jump in and sort it out” while he focused his attention on another part of the same mural. As I watched John paint, with steady strait lines and smooth blends, his 30 years experience was clear. I did my best to emulate his mastery. 

I’ve often had a good natural sense of perspective, so I hoped that I had something to contribute. I used the top and bottom of the train as my guides and went for it, deciphering the placement and depth of shadows and highlights, window wells and hand rails. I was learning a lot, just working with the paint. My lines improved, as I held my brush way back like I was instructed to. I practiced shadow edges, which were a next level challenge at full scale and became a masking convert!

It was nice that he wasn’t micro-managing, but at the same time, I wondered when John would step in with some advice or direction. When he did, a couple of days in, everything changed. He liked what I was doing, but realized that he wanted a different angle on the top of the train. I jumped right in, to paint again, with the new perspective that he re-established for me to work from. The next day, he suggested that I change the shadow color. But I was working with the same colors that I’d been working with for two days… the same colors that were already there, when I started… the same colors that I used BOTH times I’d painted that same section.

Similar chaos was taking place on the “plasma” project. Two part-time painters were working on that job, at different times and were regularly given the go-ahead to paint over one another’s work…

I’m not going to get into every little detail of what I saw as errors in procedure, just to show that he seemed to be working out aspects of the design, on the fly. It’s tough enough to work that way on an 18X24” canvas—I know, because I do it all of the time—but to work this way on 10’ and 20’ high murals… it’s amazing they ever get completed. I’m going to venture to guess that the extra time afforded by painting off-site, removes the sense of urgency and makes up for these inefficiencies.

From looking at his incredible work, from over the years, I imagined business operations would run like a well-oiled machine.

Six nights of painting and repainting the same 36 square foot section, was starting to get rather frustrating.

So, I decided to cut my visit short, but not without sitting down with John to ask him every question I had about the whole process, which I’d only seen bits of. He urged me to return and join him for more work preparing canvases and installing them in the future, as he said that it’s the real and only way to learn, but he answered my questions, anyway.

I learned plenty in my short time there. I watched his paint application mastery at work, I listened to his global ideas about light and shadow that trick the eye in an outdoor setting, and I wrote down every detail of his process. John also gifted me sixty square feet of fabric (his canvas) to play with—and if I can follow multiple you tube videos to build my own shower, I think that I can figure much of this out. I guess we’ll see!

It obviously means a lot to John to be passing down this knowledge; he’s been offering these internships for many years. I’m grateful to have been the recipient of that and to have felt so welcome, in his home.

The nature of being an artist means taking risks, casting yourself into the theoretical void. Without knowing the outcome, I made this long trip, into unknown territory and I made it out alive! I got to sink into a new part of the country for a couple of weeks, find new strengths, amid the challenges that were presented, and make new friends. My sense of adventure is renewed!

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