Artist With a Bird's-Eye View

Paintings of grackles in a tube that runs through artist William Newman's shower wall make up
Paintings of grackles in a tube that runs through artist William Newman's shower wall make up "The Nest" at Adamson Gallery. (Adamson Gallery)
By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Light shines through the grackles in William Newman's oils, as it does through the layers of his semi-transparent paints. His frantic birds, their mouths agape, are semi-transparent, too, they're that fresh from the egg. When the leaf-filtered sunlight gets into their nest, it goes right through their cheeks.

Their nest was built in a small tunnel. That tunnel is a tube that Newman had constructed through the wall of his house in Northwest Washington. The indoor end of the tunnel is in his shower beside the fold-down seat. He spends a lot of time in his shower.

"The Nest," his exhibition at the Adamson Gallery, includes 17 of Newman's bird paintings, which, unlike most, don't look stuffed. Newman's bird paintings are motion paintings. His grackles aren't at rest. They're blurred by agitation, and by the desperation of their feed-me, feed-me peeps.

Newman's pleading nestlings are like little blossomings of the life force, vulnerable and poignant, miraculous nonetheless.

Newman, 57, was 31 years old when he learned he was weakening from multiple sclerosis. He put the tunnel in his shower when he found he couldn't walk anymore. The painter nowadays is seldom in a hurry. Once he gets into his shower, he tends to stay there for a while. To the inside of the tunnel he fitted a ship's porthole (salvaged, screw-latched, brass). "That way," he says, "you can open the porthole and put your hand out and get the snow or rain."

The tunnel was empty for nine years before birds decided to nest in it. For 11 days both parents fed their hatchlings ceaselessly. Newman filmed them. His video is on view. He also watched and watched. He wasn't in a hurry. These days he paints slowly. He's worked on and off for years applying colored glazes to the oils in his paintings.

Here are three reasons why I like them a lot.

First, they're finely crafted. When I met him in the 1960s, Newman already was a specialist in artists' materials. He knew all about the stiffness of bristles and the colors of color pencils and the efficiency of solvents and the varying absorbencies of different papers. He knew all that because he had to. Long before Bill Newman became a professor at the Corcoran, he ran the in-school shop there selling professional art supplies to students at the Corcoran School of Art.

Some of his grackles are on canvas, but most are on wood. They're panel pictures painted on cabinet-grade, birch-veneer plywood, but not directly on the wood. Before he puts his colors down he applies a dozen undercoats of white and chalky gesso. He's similarly demanding when it comes to the medium in which he floats his pigments. The medium he prefers is one used by the Old Masters. Its recipe is ancient. Newman can't cook it himself anymore, he doesn't have the strength, but he used to.

"You should have seen him," says Tom Green, his fellow Corcoran professor, "working at his fire, outside, in the parking lot, by the kilns. He looked like an alchemist."

Newman's formula called for 10 parts linseed oil to one part beeswax and one part lead, in BB form. To achieve the proper viscosity he had to heat the mixture slowly, over 2 1/2 hours, to 400 degrees.

The colored light you see when you're looking at his nestlings has been through his glazes twice -- first arriving from outside, then after bouncing off the gesso, returning through his glazes until it hits your eye.


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