It is not unusual for an artist to layer paint in a way that allows parts of the underpainting to show through in the final work. Nathan Florence, whose work is currently on display at the Kimball Art Centerin Park City, has taken this process a step further: He uses patterned fabrics as his ground, superimposing on them his figures or landscapes while teasing the pattern through in both subject and background. The result creates a sense of mystery bound by unity of design.
Florence says he started out painting directly on white canvas, and later switched to a toned canvas. Eventually he began making his own varied grounds by creating abstract, colorful messes with the leftover paint on his palette at the end of each painting session. “I’d build up color, texture, in an abstract foundation and then paint on it. I loved the unpredictable nature of it.”
Florence has always been interested in textiles and patterns and has collected many pieces, either from clothing, upholstery, or yardage. So a few years ago, he decided to see what would happen if he painted directly on a piece of patterned fabric.
First he had to determine the best way to stretch or adhere the fabric to a support. He has used acrylic matt medium to adhere fabrics to stretched canvas, clayboard, or museum board. And he’s stretched the patterned fabric around stretcher bars without canvas backing. His objective is always to create a stable, smooth surface that won’t stretch or buckle during or after the painting process. Experimenting with flannel, cotton, silk, linen, brocade, corduroy, polyester, and hand-embroidered fabrics, he’s learned by trial and error which fabrics will rip at the corners of the stretcher bars; which will pucker and sag; and which will lose their texture and nap if covered with matt medium.
While mounting and stabilizing the fabric continues to pose a logistical challenge for Florence, his new method also poses compositional demands. As he plans his painting, he decides where he wants the pattern of the fabric to show through. Then he draws his subject on the patterned fabric with chalk. Since matt medium will change the finish of the fabric, Florence sometimes applies the medium around those shapes that will not be painted with oil, but will be left as the patterned fabric. Once the fabric is adhered or stretched and the subject is drawn, Florence uses oils to start the push-pull dance between subject and background, paint and pattern. Using Liquin generously and a glazing technique, he paints some areas translucently, allowing the pattern to play a part. In other areas, the paint is applied opaquely. Sometimes he paints around elements of the pattern in the fabric, allowing it to play a more central role and become an integral part of the subject.
Florence has achieved a level of excellence in both craft and creativity in the integration of pattern and paint. Florence’s favorite subject, making up most of the work in his current show, is the human figure. The pattern of the printed or embroidered fabric may be the dress of his subject, but on closer inspection is also evident in her body or face. The pattern may be prominent in a tree, but also subtly present in the grass or ground, making the viewer want to look more closely and stay in the painting for a long time.
Looking at Florence’s array of works at the Kimball I was thus pulled into “Rite,” an image of several women in bathing suits at the beach, towels laid out on the sand ready for the sunbathing ritual. In this painting Florence used a hand-embroidered silk a friend had purchased for him. Embroidered spiral shapes, covered with oil paint become interesting patterns in the sand and throughout the piece. The translucent application of oil paint in the women’s bodies makes them almost ghostly while the towels on the sand appear to have more substance.
I’m interested to see how Florence’s work continues to evolve and where his experiments may take him in the future.
If his name sounds familiar, it could be because Florence is the designer of the fifth hole in the Contemporary Masters mini-golf game exhibit at the Salt Lake Art Center. He also helped found, and teaches art at, The Weilenmann School of Discovery in Parley’s Canyon. He has also taught art at the Waterford School in Sandy.
Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.