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Out of the Alley

NOVEMBER 10, 2009

5 years ago I was sitting in a house in the mountains of Pennsylvania feeling quite low.  Outside the winter chill cut through the pines and sent ice crystals against the window I was peering out of.  Inside the family was occupied and staying warm.  It was a holiday visit to the mountains and this left me with idle time.  I don’t know how to deal with idle time.

At this point in my life, things were off kilter.  As a result my work was in a rut and though I had assignments, none were the kind I wanted and I wondered, looking out at the frosty scene, how I would get things right.

Inspiration is the only path I know of at times like these.  I had just been studying the paintings of William Johnson Heade.  I connected to the idea of images as ‘stages.’  One can direct the eye exactly where you wanted to no matter what the liner design was.  Seeing these works, I was pondering the idea of my own little presentations of birds and flowers.  Albert Bierstadt’s grand scenes have always inspired me and standing in front of one of these canvases, it can pull the breath out of your lungs and almost make you shield your eyes.  The crucial element that both Heade and Bierstadt utilize is deep darkness. 


Staring out a window I drew a giraffe.  Why?  I have no idea but I must have been thinking of past successes, such as my elephant painting.  This giraffe was sketched on a piece of paper on a message pad.  We all know the feeling; when an idea is just born.  It felt good.

Slowly over that winter and year my doldrums lifted.  Many things factored into this change, some of it the energy I got out of teaching at the University of the Arts, some of it helpful shrink visits and most of it from leaning into life and looking forward. 

In the subsequent years I added this sketch to a sketchbook and added many more ideas.  The career took over again as it often does and I was again busy and fulfilled.  The sketchbook ideas give me a deep satisfaction and comfort but I’m starting to think of my unrealized sketches as false bullets.  I feel safe having them but they kind of make me a TV cowboy.  Shiny silver holster and a sure shot but not a real cowboy.  It’s time to get them out and risk having to reload.  I guess all artists have to do this.


I started to produce this painting with research.  I love alleyways.  They are the stages I see all the time.  Subway rides from Brooklyn to Manhattan can sometimes give you unique views into these wonderful alleys between buildings.  These are often perfect frames for images.  I began photographing them and saving these references.  The Philadelphia zoo is a wonderful place to see animals up close.  The Bronx zoo keeps the visitors far from the action but the old Philadelphia Zoo gets you very close.  I shot many images of this particular giraffe with my class at the University of the Arts 3 years ago.  Still, I did not get the artwork right away.  The alleyways were good, but not what I was imagining.  I would just have to wait and shoot more.

Last spring I was out with my class at UArts for lunch.  It was raining and I was leaving a pizza joint and there it was, the lighting and alley that I was thinking of.  The wet ground made the light even longer in the alley and I knew this was it.  I shot the alley.  I had all the required elements.


This fall, on the heels of success with ‘Chuck Brown’ and perhaps feeling a bit of a TV Cowboy, I did a final sketch. 

This image is what I love to do besides portraits.  Lately I’ve been talking to my classes about the importance of working hard on parts of a painting that were NOT the idea.  A window in the corner, a downspout in the shadows are easily sketched in and forgotten but I practiced what I preach in this one.  There is equal attention all over this painting.


Feeling low is part of being an artist I fear.  We ride waves of euphoria when we catch a wave of good work or success.  We crash off the board and sometimes just sit in the calm water waiting for the waves to come back.  Sometimes you have to be more proactive that waiting and actually get moving and find a wave. 

This is a shot out that window at the icy mountains of Pennsylvania.
William Johnson Heade
Albert Bierstadt
This is the original sketch. I did fancy adding clothes lines in the background but I gave that up for the clarity of the background.
A possible alternate idea that I may get to yet.
Alley #1
Alley #2 in Washington D.C.
I am always looking for the perfect alley stages. This one has the building in the background that I like. The sun goes through this alley so the shadows never get deep enough.
I loved this shot of the body of the giraffe from Philadelphia.
Neck reference
Revised sketch of the original. The head is still in one direction with the body. I opted to turn it back for the final. I also decided that I could skip the mountainous cloud (this time).
The perfect reference. I finally found the alley. I had not considered water on the ground but I loved that aspect.
The turn back seemed necessary when it went from a sketch to a large piece. I don't know why.
I like the long puddles from the foreground to the background.
The use of white gouache is evident up close. I use it to brighten up the details.
© 2024 Tim O'Brien