How I Create Surreal Backgrounds for my Paintings

Hi there, art lovers.

Over the last few years, I’ve fielded a ton of great questions from artists, collectors, and generally curious folk. The conversations have been awesome and engaging, and I’m truly grateful to take part in any conversation about my art…or really anyone’s art, at all.

But…

There is one question I’ve long struggled to answer.

Just one…

“How do you create your backgrounds?”

So…yeah. It’s a solid question, and it’s something I’ve not done a terrific job of answering. Until now, my answers have usually been, “It’s complicated,” or, “I’ll get around to making a process video someday,” or something entirely too brief, such as, “I use wet brushes. Lots and lots of wet brushes.

Yep.

It’s likely, after all these years, people are beginning to suspect I’m hiding some big, dark secret. Or that I don’t want to share some proprietary artistic discovery. Or maybe that I’m just a jerkface who avoids direct questions.

Nope.

None of those. I hope.

About a month ago, I decided to try something to answer this question once and for all. “Okay,” I told myself. “I’m going to make a time-lapse video. It’s time to show the process. A video will tell the whole story.” 

I started the video. And after much cursing, several awkward angles, and the worst lighting setup ever, I fell prey to frustration and gave it up. Between you and me…it was a total fail. My camera setup was weak, my video skills frail, and my process…well…it’s even more of a beast than I already knew it to be.

So…

Here’s what I’ve decided.

I’m going to do my best to describe, step-by-step, how I create the swirly, surreal, and often strange backgrounds featured in most of my artwork.

Swirls, whirls, and surreal madness…

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Okay then.

Let’s jump right in.

Step one, and it’s very important, is to start with a high-quality canvas stretched on sturdy wooden-panels. I typically get mine from Blick Art’s premium canvas collection, but I’ve also scoured Michael’s and a handful of local art supply stores, including JoAnn’s. Now, there are several keys to a canvas being ‘high-quality.’ No nicks or scuffs in the canvas. No flimsy panels. But the number one most important quality for this particular process is that the canvasses are flat. As in, very flat. No warping. No bends in the wood. No dips or loose, flappy canvas stretches.

Flat. Flat. Flat. 

Why? We’ll get to that later.

Step two. Acrylic paint. Lots and lots of acrylic paint. Especially white, black, unbleached titanium, and Payne’s grey. These are your most important weapons. I use Liquitex Basics, never the heavy-bodied stuff. You can use any brand you want, but whatever you do, don’t use different brands of paint while working on the same painting. The varied consistencies will cause awkward color blends, and the varied dry times will wreck your process.

Step three. A big, flat table. The flatter, the better. For your first several (or several hundred, in my experience) attempts, you’ll probably make a mess. So maybe choose a table you like, but don’t love. I use two different tables. A heavy Home Depot workbench and…perhaps surprisingly…the granite countertop in my kitchen.

Step four. Brushes. For these kinds of backgrounds, you’re going to need several sizes of brushes. Big (1″ wide) trim brushes. Fat-bottomed brushes that can hold a bit of water. Slim, knife-like brushes for detail work. Itty bitty pointy brushes for blending in tight spots. For background work, I don’t use anything fancy. Save your best brushes for the post-background subject work. Just buy a ton and keep extras on hand (I mostly use these.)

Step five. A jar (or jars) for holding water. As you likely know, acrylics dry fast. And your biggest enemy in this process will be time. You need to keep your brushes mildly wet (but not soaking) at all times. If the paint dries, the artist cries.

So…

You’ve got a canvas, a flat space to work, brushes, acrylic paints, and water.

Now it’s time to work.

Step six is key. This is the underpainting, the core of your color base, the background to the background. With a un-wetted brush, using un-watered acrylics, apply your various acrylic colors to the canvas in a single not-too-thick layer. Use whites and unbleached titanium in the areas of your painting which will be light, and darker tones in areas of shadow. Between these, you’ll use the actual non-neutral colors you want your painting to contain.

Here’s an example. This is my painting ‘Born of Fire,’ in which I used about ten difference color hues to create the background. Ignore the tree and moon on this piece. Focus on the general layout of the background colors beneath.

 

What you want to do is apply the colors in roughly (it doesn’t need to be precise) the areas in which they’ll appear in the finished background. It’s just an underpainting at this stage. Precision isn’t as important as general location.

Step seven. Wait for the underpainting to dry completely. One or two hours should be enough. If you’re in a rush, run a fan nearby to whisk fresh air across the canvas surface. In any case, do not begin the next step until the underpainting is finished drying. Else you’ll get weird pops and textures you might not want. (Although, for advanced painters, you can actually time this to create the textures and pops on purpose.)

Step eight. The background. This is where the magic happens. You’ll need your brushes, your water, and patience all on hand. What you’ll want to do here sounds complex, but it’s really not. I’ll break it down in a bulleted list:

  • Starting with your lightest color, and ending with your darkest, use a larger water-wetted brush (1/2″ – 3/4″ wide) to apply your colors in the precise areas you want them to appear in the background. Remember…light to dark.
  • When applying each color, continue dipping your brushes into the jar of water between each brush stroke. The key: only a little bit of wetness. Too much will make the colors run wild across the canvas.
  • Work quickly. While the water will slow the drying of the acrylics somewhat, it’ll still start drying after about 15-20 minutes.
  • In any area where two or more colors meet, use wetted knife-edge brushes to apply narrow lines of water. The colors will begin to blend. The smaller the brush you use, the more control you’ll have. If you want your colors to be a bit unpredictable (which is just fine, by the way!) use larger brushes with a bit more water. More water will make the colors run wild.
  • If you want to smooth out brush strokes or make them disappear altogether, pat down the area using the flat side of a mildly wet brush. Or…for a cool stippled effect, very lightly pat the area with a dry paper tower.
  • Third reminder: Always work light to dark. If you jump back from a dark area to a light area using the same brush, you’ll lose the explosive lighting effect.
  • The reason using a flat surface and a flat canvas is key? If your workspace and canvas aren’t flat, your colors will tend to run downhill…literally. Colors you didn’t intend to combine will tend to mix, and murky patches could form. Flat, flat, flat!

Step nine. Now your painting, plenty damp and crazy looking, will begin to dry. But your work continues. You’ll need to babysit your painting at this stage, using smaller, mildly wet brushes to carefully blend areas of color you may have missed the first time. Also, sometimes tiny pool of water will form, which can tend to make patches of your background look murky. In these cases, use the corner of a paper towel to gently soak up any excess water. Or…carefully use smaller brushes to manipulate the wet paint for a better color-blend.

Step nine is usually the most challenging part of this process. Depending on the size of the painting, you may need to hover over your painting for ten minutes…or several hours, correcting murky patches, refining color blends, and building up your background to look exactly how you want. Patience is key here. Attentiveness to detail can make all the difference between creating a swirly, colorful landscape…or a murky, too-wet swamp.

Step tenonly if needed. Often, with larger backgrounds, doing step nine just once isn’t enough. Acrylics can be cranky, and sometimes, even with underpainting and a full second layer of paint on top of the underpainting, pale patches can emerge. In this case, what I do is wait for the canvas to completely dry…and complete step nine again. Sounds tedious, right? But in truth, adding another layer can result in a truly deep, vibrantly colorful background. Powerful colors are your friend, and often the best way to achieve it is in layers.

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For fun, here’s three before and after photos. The first photo is after the backgrounds are applied, but before drying. The second is the completed painting with full details.

‘Let Us Be Shadow’

‘Dark Desperation’

‘Bridge of the Broken Moon’

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With your background complete, your paints dried, and your brushes cleaned, you’re all ready for the fun part. Step eleven is all yours. Paint atop your background as you would any other acrylic piece, paying attention to the light and dark areas, and you’re sure to create something spectacular.

And most importantly, have fun!

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For a closer look at all my crazy backgrounds and completed works, head here.

Thanks for stopping by.

J Edward Neill

New Dark Art Print Bundles!

Five new art print bundles from Shadow Art Finds!

Multiple prints per bundle.

Dark Strings

Spectral Places

Surreal Worlds

Dark Skulls

Simple and Surreal

Available in both lustre paper and somerset giclee.

Click each pic to be spirited away…

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Dark Strings


 

Spirits of the Surreal

Spirits of the Surreal


Spectral Visions


Dark Skulls


Simply Surreal

Mounted Prints by ShadowArtFinds – As Close to the Original as You Can Get!

Hi there, art lovers.

Do you love art prints, but not so much framing?

Do you prefer art that arrives at your door ready to hang?

Did you want an original painting, but it sold before you could snare it?

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To address all of this, I’ve created a new option of art prints in my store.

Mounted canvas giclees.

What are they?

Well…

They’re gorgeous, gallery-quality canvas giclee prints stretched on a sturdy 5/8″ wooden frame.

If you want the feel of an original canvas painting, but the price of the original is too hefty, these are for you!

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Want yours?

Click the pic and be spirited away…

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Lords of the Black Sands – The Apocalypse is Now!

For centuries, Galen has been on the run.

Through cities long abandoned and across deserts salted with bones, the Nemesis and his legions pursue him to the ends of the earth.

But no longer…

When Galen learns the location of the life-extending Blue Vials, he sets out to defeat the Nemesis and his wicked, world-dominating father, the Pharaoh.

But Galen has more in mind than killing the Lords of the Black Sands. He desires the world to become his own, and he’ll stop at nothing to climb the Pharaoh’s throne.

Because to live is divine, but to live FOREVER is destiny.

Lords of the Black Sands – a dark and vivid look at a future that may yet be.

 

Dark Bob Ross talks Artistic Inspiration

Hi there, everyone.

It’s been one hell of a year so far.

I’m not talking about the ‘Rona, the fires, the hurricanes, the end of the world.

I’m sticking to art, with which I’ve been obsessed for many years, but none so much as this one. While the world has been busy destroying itself, I’ve been locked away in my house, making a mess of things.

So today I want to share with you five of my favorite pieces. And with each piece, I want to talk about how it came into being and what the painting means to me.

So then…

Let’s begin…


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Painting # 1 – The Unheaven

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It was a dark and stormy night. No really, it was. I’d just finished a long week of painting huge, complex pieces, and frankly I was worn out. You know that place your mind goes when you’ve hit a creative wall? Or really, a wall of any kind? Yeah. That’s where I was at. I was tired. I was dead.

The plan?

To take a few days off, regroup, and come back to the canvas with a refreshed sense of inspiration.

But it’s funny how the universe works. Sometimes, while wandering the shadowed realm between exhaustion and furious self-examination, we stumble upon rare moments of insight. It happened to me that night. The windows and doors to my little house were wide-open, and the sounds of the night pouring in. My young son was fast asleep, and I, weary and wanting to rest, wandered blearily to my painting cabinet.

It was then a question struck me. What if…all our preconceptions set aside…the idea of Heaven isn’t what we think? What if Heaven is not what we want it to be? What if, instead of angels and sunshine, feasts and Valkyries, the afterlife is something else entirely?

Out came the reds, the bronzes, the blacks, the golds, and the muted ivories. Within a few hours, well past midnight, I’d manifested an alternate view of Heaven. It was a lonely place. A place of eternal waiting. A place in which the souls of the departed rested alone, longing for the Heaven they’d been promised in life.

It might be that you look at this piece and see nothing so deep. You might see just a tree, some curtains, a stony floor, and a horseshoe crab-looking moon thing. That’s fine by me.

But personally, I dreamed of a place in the afterlife none of us would ever dare anticipate.

And so it was – The Unheaven.

 


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Painting # 2 – Grove of Many Moons

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It was the opposite of a dark and stormy night… 🙂

Long after finishing The Unheaven, I awoke on a pleasant summertime Saturday. Again, the windows were open and the air flowing in, but this time the sunshine was glorious, and the rain entirely absent. It was the kind of morning everyone enjoys, even me, the dark Bob Ross. (Credit to Twitter for the cute nickname.)

For Grove of Many Moons, I created a background of greens and blacks, empty but for a few distant trees. The process took several hours, many of which were me waiting for the acrylic layers to dry in the sun. While soaking up the warm air wafting into my kitchen, I started thinking about the many phases of life, the many places we go not physically, but in our minds. And I pondered how, even though we may wander far and wide of where we intended to go, we always tend to return home. Home being our personal center, our individual sanctuary of thought and imagination.

We move in phases, we humans. We roam in our dreams. We change even as we remain the same. Our roots are our bodies, but our minds are as free as the wind, as limitless as the night sky.

In a way, we’re like the moon.

I finished this one late at night the next Sunday, but the weather never changed. It stayed warm and glorious until I was done. And then the rain arrived.


 

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Painting # 3 – Furnace of the Fallen

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Now let’s get dark again.

People who know me know I’m not a political or religious human. At all. What goes on in the larger world largely generally doesn’t concern me. If we as a people are going to thrive, destroy ourselves, or something in-between, it’s ultimately not up to me (or any one person.) That’s not to say I don’t care, just that I acknowledge my smallness. Like Carl Sagan said of humanity on Earth, the pale blue dot… ‘That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives … on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.’

But…

That said…

Not being involved doesn’t mean I don’t notice things. And naturally, how I express and process the workings of the larger world is done on canvas. With paints. Usually dark colors.

And so arrived Furnace of the Fallen. This piece is how, for at least the space of one weekend, I imagined our future. The great dark towers of our vast, powerful cities, hollowed out and left to decay in shadow. The fumes of our manufactured world, choking out the sun. The blues and greens of nature, muted and turned to metal.

You get the point.

I’m not always a nihilist, but when I am, I paint it.

🙂


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Painting # 4 – Moonbringer 

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What if we could close our eyes and go anywhere? Not just in our minds, but literally.

Where would you go?

What would you do?

Moonbringer came to life one evening when I was completely alone. My son was away, the music was softly playing (no midnight death metal-a-thon this time) and the ideas flowed like wine. I tried to think of a place I’d want to go, and of a means to get there. The idea of a portal and a fantastical forest immediately came to mind.

From the start, this large piece felt utterly fantastical. The color scheme, the twisty trees, the totems with runic writing…it all felt otherworldly. And on that night, otherworldly was exactly what I wanted.

Where would I go? Probably another planet.

What would I do? Probably wander the forest and look for food.

Of all the paintings from this year, Moonbringer was probably the one during whose creation I had the most fun. I really let my brush do as it willed. No rules. No structured plan. I really imagined myself leaping through the portal and into a world that hasn’t yet been discovered.


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Painting # 5 – Seizing Heaven

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What if every plant, tree, and blade of grass on earth reached not for the sun, but for something much higher?

This was the question I asked myself while creating one of my biggest ever pieces, Seizing Heaven. My state of mind on the morning I began work on it was focused. Typically, I’ll let the brush do what it wants, but with this painting I hunkered over the canvas for endless hours, obsessing over every detail, every pinprick of light, every shadow.

These trees aren’t just reaching for the light. They want to conquer it. Earthbound for millennia, they’re grasping skyward with glorious aim. They’re impeded by the wind, the clouds, and the sheer magnitude of the vast power for which they hunger.

But no matter. They, like so many living, breathing people, have a desire that is unquenchable.

The trees are us.

The great light in the sky? It’s the thing for which we all reach, whether a goal, a place, or a state of thought. It’s different for every one of us.

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Hopefully you enjoyed this sliver of insight. I don’t always feel deeper meaning when I touch brush to canvas, but sometimes I do…and it overtakes me until I finish.

Until next time…

J Edward Neill

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The Dark Artist’s Playlist

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Normally, if you asked me what kind of music I listen to, I’d hit you up with the strangest of combinations. “Death metal, classical soundtracks, and more death metal,” I’d say. I might rattle off a list of obscure soundtracks, old school death metal albums, and artists from the early 90’s, and you’d probably roll your eyes.

It’s okay. That’s a normal reaction. Contemporary music just isn’t my thing.

But…

When I get down to painting…

I sometimes get even more obscure.

So let’s dive right in.

These are my top ten music selections, whether artists or individual albums, to which I listen while painting away my days and nights.

Please enjoy…


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Hildur Guonadottir

Say her name three times fast, I dare you. So, what can one say about Hildur? Most probably know her as the Oscar award-winning creator of the Joker soundtrack. But really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Hildur has several albums, soundtracks, and collaborative pieces with other European artists, ALL of which are amazing. For melancholic string work, atmospheric vocals, and emotional yet subtle compositions, no one is quite like Hildur.

For starters, try her solo album, Without Sinking. The string work alone is enough to make my paintbrush move without my even touching it.

And then move right along to Saman, whose atmospheres and moods aren’t like anything else on this list.

Late at night, while the rest of the world dreams, there’s a pretty good chance I’m wide awake, painting my heart out, absorbing hours of Hildur’s work.

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Hans Zimmer

Ok. Let’s go a little more mainstream.

Everyone knows Hans Zimmer, right?

The composer behind the Gladiator, Interstellar, and Inception soundtracks?

All credit to the master. I’m sure I’m but one of thousands who are inspired to create based on Hans’ work.

I mean…just listen to this.

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Agalloch

Up until about two years ago, I’d never heard of this band. And then one day I devoured this album, and I knew there was no going back.

Agalloch is a bit louder and more aggressive than most of the sounds on this list. And yet…the depth and length of their albums are enduring enough to inspire plenty of art.

When trying to categorize Agalloch, I sometimes lack the words. They’re not really metal, nor classical, nor contemporary. The way they blend acoustic guitar with slower, chunkier, heavier riffs, and the sheer longevity of most of their songs allows one to fall into a creative ocean…and not need to surface for hours.

I prefer listening to these guys when creating larger paintings. I let the drums set the pace for my background brush strokes, and then I forget what time of night it is.

Sadly, they’re no longer making music. But their catalogue is more than enough to occupy your ears for days.

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Depeche Mode

80’s fans will instantly recognize the name, and no further questions will need to be asked.

For everyone else, I’ll say only this. I don’t generally care for most 80’s bands. They’re much too poppy, too concerned with their hair.

But then there is Depeche Mode, one of few artists from that long ago decade capable of creating a genuine dark mood. Yes, plenty of their songs are about addiction and broken hearts. But I’m not really here for the lyrics, after all. I’ve here for Depeche’s moody beats. Their heavy sense of regret. Their darkness.

And more’s the better for painting.

Here. My personal favorite song, Waiting for the Night.

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Johann Johannsson 

Every once in while, as many of us know, Spotify will deliver us down into a musical rabbit hole.

It was on one such night, while I patiently worked on another of my giant dark tree paintings, Johann emerged onto my playlist.

We’ve talked about Hildur Guanodottir already. Johann Johannsson is quite similar, if darker and more heavily produced. His soundtracks are truly all over the map in terms of depth, mood, and tonal range.

For starters, there’s the super intense Sicario soundtrack. But then there’s this bizarre gem, which I can’t even begin to categorize.

There are nights during which I simply set my music box to ‘Johann’ and never look back. My only grief is that he passed away recently, and thus won’t be able to create more of his wondering, ethereal music.

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Type O Negative

You might ask yourself, “What the hell are these guys doing here?”

Well… Everyone once in a while… I need to add a splash of anger to my art.

And who better than Type O?

I remember being fresh out of high school. And yes, that was ages ago. I heard Peter Steele booming away on albums which seemed to last forever, and I was hooked. As an artist, and as someone who needs to set the mood…and then for it to last a while, I’m not sure there are too many better choices for angst and anger than this here album. Or this one.

Do they truly fit in with the rest of my cello-heavy, moody-acoustic choices? No. Not at all.

And yet here they are.

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Max Richter

Speaking of moody, here’s a little something.

Max Richter is the master of one thing – long, enduring, ethereal soundtracks. Yes, he has shorter works, such as this beautiful piece. But primarily he deals in songs that seem unending, songs with a limited range but a very striking hook. There are no words (literally everything he does is instrumental) to describe some of his albums, one of which, at 8 hours, 24 minutes, he created with a theme and mood so simple, one could put it on in the background and fall into a waking dream for days.

If I want calm, and if I want to paint with slow, serene strokes, Max is my choice.

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Danzig

But then again, if I want raw, dark power, I turn to no other than the evil side of Elvis, Glenn Danzig.

Look, say what you will about Danzig’s newer works (which aren’t very compelling) his older music is unparalleled. Yes, he has the one soundtrack-ish album, Black Aria, but for my deep, dark art nights, I turn to his original four compilations, Danzig 1-4.

If a painting requires fury, sorrow, and perhaps more than a splash of dark passion, I go here, or especially here.

And my paintbrush and I will never look back.

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Robert Rich / Alio Die

Ok, let’s go completely off-grid.

If someone had asked me ten years ago, “Do you like New Age music?” I’d have slapped them in the jaw and shot fire out of my eyes. “New Age, you say? Are you out of your mind?”

Fast forward to today, and I get it now.

There’s something meditative about certain albums I’ve (accidentally) unearthed, and after lengthy experimentation, I’ve decided Robert Rich (and Alio Die, but primarily Robert Rich) is my go-to as far as shadowy, murky, atmospheric music. For example: this. And this. I’ve found myself listening to these and others not only while painting, but while driving long-distance, and finding inspiration whether standing before my easel or riding the long, lonely road.

How far will I follow my New Age curiosity? I suppose time will tell.

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Gregorian Chants

Ok, so…yeah.

At times, I find myself craving the most classical of classical music, the purest, simplest form of human noise-making.

And that, my friends, is chanting.

I don’t have a favorite album for this sort of thing. In fact, other than the Tallis Scholars (whom I adore) I don’t know the names of most of the artists/monks who create this wonderful expression of voice.

But on some afternoons, if the sun is shining just so, and if the mood so strikes me, I’ll put on an hour or five of Gregorian chants and forget I live in the 21st Century.

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If you haven’t guessed by now, pretty much all I do is listen to music and make art.

My art is here.

I hope it makes music for your eyes.

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J Edward Neill