EDITOR’S NOTE: Comic Riffs asked Washington Post artist and designer Mark Giaimo to illuminate how he creates his still-life paintings — what he likes to call “toy lifes.” Here is a step-by-step look at he approaches a new canvas. 


by Mark Giaimo 

FIRST, I should explain why in the world I paint these things. It’s not like I’m a collector of toys, or am overly nostalgic, or am a huge fan of still-life painting. The reason is far more mundane: I get tired of painting from photographs as visual references, as I often do; I’m at a computer all day, so the last thing I really want to do is stare at another computer monitor. And my friends, who generally model for me when I’m painting the human form, only have so much patience and time, and I’m left with hours to fill, so what to do?

For me, it’s toys.

Toys cheap, quiet and respectful. They don’t argue about the size of their nose. They can hold a pose forever. And crucially, they are somewhat anthropomorphic, which forces me to stay disciplined in my drawings. They’re like artist casts, but in color, and they lend themselves to a variety of treatment: as narratives, as satires or as homages of the still-life genre.

To show as well as tell, here’s one way I go about painting a still life — or “toy life.”

The work: “The Tempest,” 30” x 42”, oil on linen.

Here is where I was with less than a week to go for the opening of my current solo show, “The Secret Life of Toys,” at Washington’s Susan Calloway Fine Arts gallery (the exhibit, which ends tomorrow, was reviewed by critic Mark Jenkins). I’m down to the final two paintings of the 10 promised to my gallery.

First comes “the thumbnail” sketch.

I grab a large canvas that I stretched a year ago, and try to figure out what I can do with it. For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing around with an idea of having my Cap’n Crunch toy drown in a storm. Why? I don’t know – ask my shrink.

I buy a snap-together pirate model ship from a local toy store, and after some mild cursing and fumbling with my crude stubby, and impatient fingers, I put it together without breaking anything.

The next part is how to create waves. I toy with the idea of using clay to sculpt them, but I’ve never done that before, and it’s too close to deadline to try. Fortunately — or serendipitously, if you’re a true believer in chance as I am — some workmen in our condo have piled up blue tarp to cover their handiwork, and it looks like a storm-tossed sea. Having experienced many a wild ride on boats, on both the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, powered by engine and by wind (in the latter case with sails shredding like confetti in 70-plus mph wind, and, in the former, having to steer by the North Star), I know what a storm looks and feels like. The power and the fear. The dread.

This nicely complements the nausea I’m feeling as, panic-stricken, I consider my present deadline.

I buy a tarp and create a diorama. It kind of works:

I do a rapid drawing in charcoal and let it sit for a day, thinking the whole idea stinks. I begin to make contingency plans to leave the country with a suitcase of small bills and my tail between my legs.

And then a beautiful thing happens. My lovely wife comes in, and says: “Oh, I like that! That’s the best one yet!”

That’s not at all her usual response, but she is my most trusted (and I daresay, critical) critic, and is invariably correct. Suddenly, I think, “Hey, it’s not so bad after all — maybe it’ll work!” Ah, the power of suggestive thinking.

I spray the charcoal with a fixative, and paint a dead-coloring — a thinned color version of the painting that closely approximates the values and hues of the set-up. Unfortunately, this oil-primed canvas has a tendency toward slickness, and the paint is sloshing around like grease. I get as far as I can and stop.

With a sad shrug, I turn to the final painting that’s on my other easel, and start on that:

.Two days later, I come back to “The Tempest” (I had been thinking of names, and that stuck). I put down the paint thickly and as violently as I can muster, using big brushes, palette knives — anything. It’s getting close to what I want, but the boat is still too vague, Cap’n Crunch needs to be refined, and the waves must look more realistic. I reference some great maritime artists, Turner, Aivazovsky, etc., and stumble upon a Corot, of all people! “The Wave” is perfect: Corot’s long dead, and I won’t get sued referencing it.

I go over the whole thing one more time, taking pains to make a perspective overdrawing of the gun-ports on the ship, so they don’t look awkward and drawn by the slackerly, lazy sod I can sometimes be. Or worse, a postmodernist who can’t draw. I grab a tube of stiff flake white and draw directly from the tube onto the canvas for the waves. I use a limited palette of cobalt blue, Payne’s gray, viridian green, and cobalt blue for the sea and sky — adding a touch of burnt sienna and light red to the Cap’n’s face. I sparingly use a light yellow for the sky, moon and the toy’s medallions, maybe a little reflection on his face. But I want the picture to look monochromatic and lean heavily toward the blue-green temperature.

It’s now Thursday evening. After two straight days and nights of painting, it’s done.

Friday and Saturday are used to complete the last painting — a relatively “simple” toy life, On Saturday night, I photograph the final four canvases that I completed in that final week and collapse in a heap.

“The Secret Life of Toys” runs through Saturday at Susan Calloway Fine Arts.