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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Spinal Stenosis

My biggest challenge is the set of issues occurring in my back.  I have had two surgeries (four level cervical fusion and a lumbar laminectomy/discectomy,) as well as dozens of epidural injections, trigger point injections, radio frequency thermo-coagulation and other similar procedures.  I've got an erector set's worth of titanium in the neck.  This all results from degenerative discs and a lot of spinal stenosis.  Other goodies like bone spurs and facet issues round out the fun.

Besides the surgeries, I take a lot of pain meds and do physical therapy.  I've done a lot of acupuncture as well.  I don't really want to detail the ways that all this impacts my life, just take it for granted that this is my biggest thing to paint about.

So I wanted to make a big canvas.  I considered some very large canvases I had stretched for video screens, but they weren't really taught enough to make me happy.  I considered large wood panels, but with the necessary cradling, they would get really heavy.  I also wanted to use the size and structure of the framing to say something about the my personal spinal framing issues.

For the composition, I knew I wanted the back, the spine and the cervical and lumbar vertebrae to figure prominently.  I love anatomy art, and easily found great imagery, primarily from Gray's Anatomy.

I worked these images on the computer to arrive at a first pass composition:

 Now I had to pick the surface to paint on.  I realized that I had a lot of blank, prepped 16"x20" canvases.  I'd already noticed that when you hang a rectangular panel by one corner, the plumb line that results is not the same as the diagonal between corners.  It is for a square, but for a rectangle, it isn't.  I wondered if that would hold true if I used an arrangement of joined panels.  Eventually, I constructed a model in cardstock to test this idea:
 This got me excited!  The combination of the 16"x20" panels would be both large and non-standard.  It wouldn't be just another rectangle.  Also, the visual dissonance set up between the plumb line and the diagonal line would be a great underlying comment on the issues I face with my spine.

I worked the computer composition onto the new layout:
 Joining the panels was pretty easy.  I used deck plates and simply screwed all panels to their neighbors.  This results in a very strong and light structure at a fraction of the cost of a comparable sized single canvas!

 I began sketching the image:
 I wanted something with a lot of texture.  I'd recently become interested in Modeling Paste, an acrylic binder with marble dust.  This can be added to thicken paint.  But I wanted to underpaint the canvas with a texture layer.  I used the modeling paste two ways, as finger paint for the muscle striations, and then using a cake decorating set for the actual vertebral outlines.  This resulted in a wonderful surface to start putting color on!

The resulting picture is 75"x50"

 Here's a picture of it hanging at Art Outside Austin in 2010 for a sense of scale: