A Contemporary Abstract Reverse Painting Artist
written by Nicole Borgenicht
Rosenberg’s reverse paintings involve subtle, multifarious color gradations, often with floating volumetric images and repeated wave-shapes that challenge the viewer to unravel his mysterious world. It is an art form that is both intentional and a surprise to viewers and the artist alike, since the front of the acrylic, which we see, is never the same as the reverse.
Rosenberg’s initial experiences in the field of visual arts led him to create paintings that imply a narrative. Recruited by Columbia College because of an art exhibit in high school, he eventually earned his MFA in the School of Arts film division, where he studied film and screenwriting. “I think that it was the combination of these two fields that spurred my interest in the relationship between image and story,” he recalls.
After completing college, and working under his birth name of Tom Ross (which he still uses in his personal life), the artist illustrated and co-wrote six successful children’s books for Scholastic and Putnam. This early success gave him the confidence to paint. His exhibitions resonated with his interpretations of universal themes. “One of the more successful shows I did at this time, Fatherhood, was a series of whimsical yet satirical portrayals of the rewards and tribulations of being a father.”
It was about ten years ago, on a trip to Colorado, that Rosenberg spotted an intriguing abstract work hanging in an art gallery window, which led him to begin experimenting with the “reverse” process. Employed as far back as the Middle Ages and in a religious context, it involves working on the backs of panes of glass to create images intended to be viewed from the front. Rosenberg employs acrylic paints and substitutes clear acrylic panels for the original glass.
“With reverse painting, the side of the acrylic that you are working on is not displayed,” Rosenberg points out. “It is the back of the paint showing through the 1/4-inch clear panel that is seen.”
While Rosenberg loves the freedom of abstraction, the methods he followed as an illustrator are ever-present. “I still incorporate certain illustrator techniques. Forms, shadows and highlights still play an important part in many of my pieces today.” But “bringing the depth to work can be especially challenging in reverse painting,” he continues, “as the process is in many ways opposite to traditional painting on canvas. For instance, highlights are painted first, not last.”
Never one to take the easy way out, Rosenberg uses more than 50 different colors and multiple layers in a typical work.
Rosenberg drew inspiration for the original piece in his ongoing “Unforeseen” series from the sight of jellyfish washed up along the shore, paralleling his magentas, purples and blues with organic shapes and the shifting light of deep waters. “Metaphorically,” he says, “these imaginings brought about a feeling of plummeting into the depth of myself—not only the richness but the scariness as well.” In this series, shapes and objects appear to be animated by nature, with each painting retaining the elegance of its singularity while remaining in harmony with the other works in its series-universe.
Because his abstract works are such a radical departure from his earlier representational art, Ross decided to adopt a different “painting name.” It was then that he began signing his works “Rosenberg.” His father, who passed away when Tom was only 16, had escaped from the Holocaust, and at Ellis Island his family name was changed from Rosenberg to Ross.
“My father’s brother and teenage nephews never made it out of Poland and presumably died in concentration camps,” Rosenberg explains. “I thought that it would be special to honor this heritage and bring the name back for my abstract work.”
Since signing his family name in reverse is difficult, Tom designed a logo. “Rosenberg means Rose Mountain, so I came up with a rose design with a stem that curves like the silhouette of a mountain.”
For Rosenberg, reverse painting has become a kind of spiritual practice. He enters the “zone” with music, a process through which the aural vibrations and meditative experience of painting become one. Renaissance painters used the technique to create spiritual imagery.
All of Rosenberg’s paintings have single word titles that come to him once the painting is finished “Unlike illustrating, it’s as if the context of the painting doesn’t reveal itself until far into the process.”
Rosenberg’s Zen series is a dramatic departure from his other bodies of work. There are no geometric or organic shapes. “My Zen paintings are minimal,” he remarks, “but in a sense they could also irreverently be called ‘maximal’ because of the intricacy of the patterns. When viewing a Zen piece, it’s as if a certain frequency of vibrations projects itself through the acrylic panel.”
Viewers of Rosenberg’s paintings frequently remark that his creative energy generates a calming effect. “Whether it be my organic, geometric or Zen pieces, I hope that a certain sacredness comes through.”
Rosenberg relocated from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Palm Springs in 2016.You can see his works at Tom Ross Gallery, 2682 Cherokee Way, Palm Springs, and at Winterowd Fine Art, 701 Canyon Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico. For more information visit www.tomrossgallery.com