Creative Process: Dianna Vosburg

Above: Allegory of Oil, ash, asphaltum, and iridescent paint on board

I was fascinated by the strange and terrible images of fires on the Gulf of Mexico when BP clean-up crews were setting oil slicks on fire. Smoke columns rising up into the sky appear often in my work; they are markers of many modern disasters that populate the news in recent years. My process involves gathering materials and imagery that together embody the concepts I am exploring or visions that haunt my imagination. For this painting, I decided to use asphaltum as an appropriate material for visualizing a response to the BP disaster.

Asphaltum, also called bitumen, is an historic oil painting pigment often used in the 18th century for a warm, brown glaze. It is naturally occurring asphalt or tar: a heavy form of oil. It also never fully dries, and has destroyed many a painting through wrinkling, delaminating, cracking, and blackening. I wanted this painting to self-destruct, as I am fascinated by how our civilization, constructed of and powered by oil and coal, is self-immolating because of our reliance on fossil fuels. I also use ash as a pigment, both for its realism and for its symbolism. I had on hand a set of iridescent oil paints to use for the oil slick (which is hard to see in a photograph, unfortunately).

I searched for images of the disaster in print media and through online searches, locating several that spoke to me, such as the dead bird soaked in oil. I used them as references for a small drawing, combining elements from the photos into a composition that I liked, modifying, editing, and resizing as I went along. For a more involved and larger painting, I commonly make color photocopies of images (often my own photographs), resizing them as necessary to make a collage (a great way to compose a complex, realistic, but highly improbable image). I can then grid up from the collage to make a larger composition, using the collage as a reference as I work on the painting. I also often make models or use objects as reference, or to photograph for the collage. For this smaller painting, I was able to do more work in my head and transfer the image directly without undue distortion.

I used a white primed panel, transferring the drawing onto it using a fluid mixture of yellow ochre and titanium white paint and a small round brush. I then filled in an underpainting in full color, using elements such as value, color temperature, overlap, lost-and-found edges, atmospheric perspective, and opacity/transparency to establish a sense of deep space. I do not use odorless mineral spirits or turpentine, preferring beautiful and safe walnut oil as a brush rinse and soak, so the paint is not thinned for the underpainting, but rather scrubbing in thinly, making a “ghost” image. Over several sessions, a slow accretion of paint layers, brushwork, and careful blending built up a painting with realism and the illusion of space…because this is a small painting, I wanted to play with a sense of profound depth. I spent a great deal of time on the dead bird (all those feathers!). I used a medium (neo-megilp) and ash as a paint to add wispy grey edges to the smoke column, and iridescent paint to make the oil sheen and touches of glimmer on the water. After all was dry, I glazed the painting with transparent pigments, such as transparent gold ochre and ultramarine, and Galkyd SD as a glazing medium.