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In Bill Newman’s home studio, sunlight slants across finished canvases, illuminating oversize flower portraits. Patches of natural light play across hyperreal orchids of pure white, sapphire blue, and golden yellow; the shadow of a chain falls across a monochromatic painting of a blue-green chrysanthemum. The effect is at once so radiant and so ordinary that it takes a while to realize the late-morning sun is not beaming through Newman’s skylights. The pools of light and blurry shadows are tricks of the brush, and the basis for Newman’s “Skylight” exhibition at the David Adamson Gallery.
The skylights were a recent revelation for the 47-year-old painter, printmaker, and Corcoran School of Art teacher. Originally, Newman had been infatuated simply with flowers because they were such a departure from his earlier work. During the ’70s, he was a member of the Washington Colored Pencil School, a so-called “metarealist”; later that decade and on into the ’80s, he targeted political issues like nuclear disarmament with “real blood and guts, real gallows humor.”
“I think I must have been at war for 20 years,” he says. “The flowers were the first time I’ve painted something where my basic concern was some sort of quest for beauty just by itself, without having to jab somebody in the knee or aggravate someone.”
Developing the flower theme took a long time, and not just because it represented a new direction for Newman. Six years ago, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and now pilots a motorized wheelchair everywhere he goes. “We worked on these paintings for three years because I’m a little slower now than I used to be,” admits the artist, as his silver-gray parrot, Spy, sidesteps up and down his denim sleeve. “It was during the last, the third year, that I was looking at the paintings in the studio, and the light would come in through the skylight.”
Unexpectedly, the skylight added a compositional element that energized Newman. He began taking Polaroids of the light patterns—Spy’s silhouette, for instance—that fell across his work. When he snapped a particularly good Polaroid, he’d take a second shot with a 35mm camera. A heap of slippery photos clutters a desk in the studio, and Newman occasionally extracts one to illustrate a point. “We spent last year putting the skylights on the flower paintings,” he explains. “First, we were doing the flowers, and then it became the skylights. It was a very natural thing.”
This methodical use of photography characterizes Newman’s multimedia approach to painting and printmaking. Since 1984, when gallery owner and fellow printer David Adamson talked him into buying a primitive Macintosh computer, Newman has developed ideas on-screen before rendering them in oil. “It was pretty exciting, like an electronic Etch-A-Sketch, y’know?” Newman says of the early Mac. “It didn’t do much, but it was really neat.” As the years progressed, he upgraded, and helped persuade Apple Computer to give the Corcoran some basic hardware, establishing one of the school’s “most booming departments.”
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“In the beginning…I was really into stretching the images, making them anamorphic, so if you look at it from the right angle, it sort of comes together, goes back to the way it’s supposed to be,” Newman explains, indicating his rectangular painting of John Tenniel’s Cheshire Cat. From a head-on perspective, the cat’s face is about 10 inches high and a yard wide. Viewed from one side, the face appears foreshortened and reduced to its standard dimensions. Numerous other elongated paintings—of a bespectacled man and of couples—hang throughout Newman’s house.
Yet, quick and precise though the Macintosh can be, Newman does not want to use it to generate finished works. “It just became a tool that I used,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in computer art, I was interested in taking my images and manipulating them.” When he developed his unsentimental flower images—which are borrowed from nature but stretched like newsprint on Silly Putty—he realized that his high-tech skills “really did make a difference.”
Having MS, too, makes his computer abilities all the more valuable. “When I went in for chemotherapy, I walked in, but I rode out,” he says gravely. “It was a bet that I lost.” Now, he plans pieces on the Mac, then instructs assistants on their completion. Yet, although he relies on his rapport with other artists to realize his vision, his perfectionism is not at all compromised. He trains his apprentices in classical methods (which were on display at White Flint Mall in the summer of 1994, when he and a team of painters completed a mural over a five-week period). “We go through three stages: I do this primatura, where everything is painted with this kind of transparent black paint,” Newman explains. “Then, for the second phase, everything is [underpainted] with black and white…and the third stage would be glazing in all the colors. So it’s very much traditional, old masters’ painting—the primatura, the underpainting, the overpainting.” The result is a smooth, almost matte surface, brilliantly colored, with a texture like wax paper; the underpainting ensures that the thin glazes appear translucent rather than muddy.
After completing a canvas, Newman—with printer Adamson—duplicates it via the iris printing process. This form of electronic printmaking allows for further adjustments in scale and in color. The latter is especially important, because even the artist’s palette has been influenced by his illness: “When I first got multiple sclerosis, the way they found out was I got optic neuritis; I lost sight in my left eye,” he says. “After about a month, my vision came back. The weird part about it was that for about eight months I was colorblind.
“You know when you see a picture of a television, a color picture in a magazine, it kind of has this bluish-white tint to it? Everything that I saw was in that bluish light.”
Once Newman regained normal vision, he easily recalled how objects looked without their customary colors. So he created the “Blue Dreams” series as a way of reproducing his colorblindness: “I think I could remember it exactly. Even now I’ll still see stuff, and it’s almost like a flashback. It’s a very strong sense, and…any time I do a series I do one for the “Blue Dream’ series, just to keep it going, to connect.”
Now that 11 paintings and five iris prints are off to the “Skylight” show, Newman finds himself at odds with his former metarealist identity and what he calls his new “imagist” self. “I think I’ve changed a little bit—[is this] what happens to old-time metarealists?” he wonders. He’s inclined to do another series of flowers, he says, because “it’s the first time I’ve ever really been comfortable with abstract.”
Newman attributes this comfort in part to growing his own flowers, so that he “knows where they’re coming from” before he digitizes, exaggerates, and paints them. “With the computer, you have so much control over color. You can take a picture of this little orchid here on the table,” he says, indicating a slender plant with white blossoms, “…and then say, “Wouldn’t it be neat if that thing were bright vermilion, or just had bright vermilion streaks around the edges?’ I’m able to take these flower shapes that are unbelievable, and then do this thing that people who breed flowers like to do, too. You can mix up art and science.”
Which—with paint and computers—he’s done for more than a decade.
“Skylight” runs Nov. 17-Dec. 21 at the David Adamson Gallery, 406 7th St. NW.