Making Her Points, One At A Time

Madeleine Keesing's evocative artwork begins and ends with single drops of paint



From a distance, Madeleine Keesing's line-drop paintings look like finely woven textiles. Step a little closer and the weave seems to ripple and flow across the surface of the canvas like water in an eddying stream.

But look even closer and the undulating lines resolve into hundreds of rows of precisely ordered drops of paint that suggest the elemental stability of atoms in a crystal grid. "People always ask how I do these paintings," Keesing says. "Either they think they must be made by a machine, or they think I squeeze the pigment from the tube directly onto the canvas. The truth is, I mix my colors in a bowl and use a brush to apply them -- one drop at a time."

One drop at a time. That's the magic as well as what some might call the madness of Keesing's method, which she has been practicing with a dedication that borders on the obsessive for at least a decade.

Before that Keesing, 58, experimented with various styles and exhibited expressionistic drawings and paintings in Washington, where she and her economist husband, Donald, have lived for the last 25 years. She stayed at home with their two children, painted in her spare time and exhibited in local shows while he worked as an economist for the World Bank.

But she left the District gallery scene in the late 1980s, when she began doing the line-drop paintings, and 10 years passed between her last solo exhibition in Washington and her recent one-person show at Baltimore's Maryland Art Place. "Those were years of concentrated searching," Keesing says. "I was getting the line paintings going, but at first they were rather crude -- the colors were garish and I wasn't sure about the scale. It took a couple of years to get something that pleased me."

Keesing was inspired in part by a friend and fellow artist who, during the 1970s, had created paintings with drops that ran to the bottom of the canvas. "I liked the idea, but not the colors she used," Keesing recalled. "So I thought I would do something different. For example, her paint dripped from the top down. I tried making it go from the bottom up. My drops didn't go very far, of course, but I liked the tension and excitement."

The evolution of her new style was painstakingly slow. "I did have faith that it would go somewhere. But when you work this way you need time alone to develop, especially getting the colors and making them do the subtle things they do. It's not as though I could make a whole body of work in a year, or even a couple of years. But at least I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and somehow I had faith that I would get there."

The MAP show was the first time a substantial group of Keesing's new paintings had been on view. The response was encouraging: Out of 12 paintings, one sold and buyers expressed interest in several others.

Even more auspicious, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington has decided to mount a one-person show of Keesing's paintings early in 2001. That event undoubtedly will bring her work to the attention of a wider public.

For Keesing, the painstaking process of building up a painting out of tens of thousands of individual drops of pigment in precisely ordered rows is as crucial to the meaning of her work as it is to the pleasure it gives the eye. "I love the idea of how a single, seemingly small act accumulates into something significant," she says. "You set certain rules for yourself and you follow them exactly and then all these other things happen."

Those "rules" are unvarying for Keesing, who employs virtually the identical technique for all her paintings.

After priming the surface with one or more stripes of color, she paints the first row of drops across the canvas, starting at the bottom left-hand corner and working her way to the opposite corner.

Keesing paints each drop individually, lifting her brush off the canvas after every stroke and reloading it with paint from her mixing bowl before applying the next drop.

When she finishes one row of drops, she starts another line of drops a half inch or so higher and repeats the entire process, always working from left to right. "It's like a meditation," she says. "When you focus on doing something that's very specific, it can take you other places. That's the mystery of it."

Usually she can paint at least a couple of dozen rows at a sitting, depending on her mood. That's enough to cover maybe a six- or seven-inch deep strip of canvas.

Sometimes she introduces small color changes in the drops as she works her way up the canvas. It can take her a week or more to paint the 100 to 200 rows required to completely cover a canvas from bottom to top.

After she has covered her canvas with the first set of rows, she starts a second set of rows directly on top of it, shifting her starting point so that the drops in the second set fall in the spaces left between drops in the first set of rows.

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