Thursday, October 23, 2014

Transparent Water

Painting water is challenging. It's generally a good idea to focus on one of the three characteristics; movement, reflectivity, and transparency. Often we see more than one of these characteristics simultaneously, but I think it makes sense to play up just one, and subordinate the others because making a single statement almost always makes for a stronger painting.  

Not saying you can't have more than one in your painting. Just saying emphasize one, and deemphasize the others, lest your impact be - ahem - watered down. (Sorry! too much wine!)

I'll just talk about the transparency today.  There's really no trick to it. If you just paint the values and the colors that you see, you will have a pretty good depiction of transparent water. The problem is we have a hard time ignoring the thingness of things and seeing just colors and values. We tend to think, "oh that's a rock. so it must be this color." or "it's water, so I have to mix a blue". 

If you can see color and value without thinking about what it is you're looking at somehow, that would be helpful. Easier said than done, right? You can learn to do this, but it does take a lot of practice. There are some things you can do to force the eye into seeing abstractly. Like looking at the view upside down by bending down and viewing through your legs. You'll look pretty silly but hey, who needs dignity when you're learning? 

You can try not looking at the object directly, but use your peripheral vision to determine the color of the object. Or make your sight go out of focus. Take off your glasses if you wear them. You can also blink your eyes repeatedly like strobe lights. You can "scan" the view by moving your head from side to side and taking in the color but avoiding focusing on any one object. You can look through a small hole in a neutral colored piece of cardboard, isolating the color.

All these techniques are intended to disengage the mind from thinking about the thingness of the things you're intending to paint and just take in the color and value information.

But after you are able to see and determine the colors of all the things that need to go into the picture, you still have to paint them.

The way I approach it is fairly organized. I wouldn't call it a formula because it's too general to be one, but it's logical nonetheless. Like everything else I do, I try to establish a broad contextual relationship first. That means blocking it (the water) in, with an average color of the water (don't think water. Just think color and value), or a few colors that makes a simple gradation. In the paintings I'm showing on this post, the gradations might be made from a dark mossy green to an ochre-ish color.  I try to keep it very simple - nothing more than a block in. 

Also important is that all the other elements (trees, shoreline) are blocked in too. The major "areas" have to work together, especially value-wise, so it's crucial to establish these relationship at an early stage. In other words, I don't just work on the water and hope to do the rest of it later. 

And then I look for submerged rocks and define them by indicating their shadows. What color are they? Well, since I approach my paintings tonally, the first thing I might do, is to just mix a darker version of the color of the water block-in. And then determine whether it's a little warmer or a little cooler, and make subtle adjustments by mixing a darker red or a darker blue, and draw them in. 

Often I see that some shadows look warmer than others, so I make sure they're not all the same. Also, I don't copy the rocks as I see them. I take cues from what's there, but I don't hesitate to change shapes, sizes, and locations so as to redesign my underwater rock garden. 

I mean, I think it's nice to be able to paint them exactly as they are, but I think it's nicer to end up with a compelling composition.

Oh, and these darks are painted fairly thinly, with transparent or semi-transparent pigments (Trans. Oxide Red + Ultramarine, for example). Dark areas like these represent shadows, cracks, and holes where light is not reaching, so I want these areas to be quiet and subordinate to the lit areas surrounding them. In juxtaposing thicker, opaque paint against thin transparent paint, the thicker paint will stand out more, while the thinly painted areas recede, (not talking about distance here. I'm just talking about whether an area jumps out at the viewer, demanding attention, or not)  so I want to take advantage of these characteristics and paint dark, quiet areas with thin, transparent colors. 

Once the shadows are in, we can see the rocks. Now we can differentiate each rock from its surrounding color by painting it in a color/value that is a variation of the original block-in color. If it's sunny, these rocks may be lighter, but that also depends on the local color/value of the rocks themselves, so they may be darker. You just have to look and make that determination individually. 

Some of the rocks may be sticking out of water, and these are often significantly lighter than its submerged parts. They make great accents or punctuations in the composition, so I place them carefully, trying different positions, quantity, sizes, and shapes. Mother Nature didn't put these accents in the water with our paintings in mind, so they don't necessarily make the best compositional devices if we paint them literally. 

On these above-water rocks, especially if the water is moving, we see darker values where it's wet but not submerged, right where water's surface meets the rock. To make sure they look wet, we have to make careful value shifts in this area. Often this dark wet areas have sharp edges. 

So if we break down the color/value variations on a single boulder, we have 1)dry lit areas, 2)wet above-water lit areas, 3)dry shadow areas, 4)wet above-water shadow areas, 5)submerged lit area, and 6)submerged shadow area.  And that's not even counting halftones and planar shifts.  Of course, we can simplify it as much or as little as we can get away with. The amount of small variations we put on each rock would depend on its context, and the artist has to make those decisions based on whether more or less information helps or hurts the painting.

There are often very bright, small, sharp highlights where the water's surface touches the rock, too, as small waves reflect the sun directly into our eye. These highlights are really effective, but if you overdo them, they look hokey, so use them sparingly.

That might be a good segue into talking about reflections, but that's another day's post. This post kinda got long winded already. If you have read this far, thanks for your patience!!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Moving Targets En Plein Air

I painted this on site during this year's Sonoma Plein Air Festival. I had my easel set up across the street from this cafe, and painted this in about an hour and a half.

As I was working, a few people stopped by to watch and they all asked how am I painting moving people? If it's a non-artist asking, there's usually some joking around; "Gotta be pretty quick, huh?" or "did you pay those people to sit still?"  Every time I include people in my plein air street scenes, I hear these comments at least once during the painting process.  I groan inside but I don't want to be rude, so I just laugh like it was the first time I've heard anyone make that joke.

But sometimes an artist will stop by and ask how to do it. And I explain to him that each figure is a composite of a bunch instantaneous impressions. The people sitting and drinking coffee at the tables don't move a whole lot (relatively speaking) so they're not too bad, but the waiter coming and going is a little tricky.

When you think about it, all painting is done from memory. You look up, you take in the information, commit to memory, and you look away. You can't see both the subject and your palette / panel at the same time, after all.

I try to focus on gesture, above all. Sure, you need information on light and shadow, colors and values, not to mention shapes and scales, but the gesture is the one thing that's fleeting and it's the one thing that communicates movement, a sense of life.

Because the waiter's job is repetitive, he'll strike a similar pose again and again, allowing me to study his posture each time, and make adjustments to my efforts.When I'm focusing on gesture, I look at the figure and try to memorize the general shape and flow of the main parts of the body. I try to draw to communicate what the figure is doing, not what he looks like. And this mind set is key. What is the back doing? What is the arm doing? Which foot is supporting the weight?

Also, when I'm focusing on gesture, I'm not thinking about color. When I'm thinking about color, I'm not thinking about gesture. These things can be done on separate glances. If I had to think about gesture and color at the same time (and value and edges and opacity and viscosity and texture and...) I'd just get confused.

But when all is said and done, the only way to get good results is... you guessed it, practice. Practice your short-pose gesture drawing constantly! Go to open sessions and do short pose (1 to 20 minutes) drawings at least once a week. On other days, you can practice in your sketchbook as you sit in a coffee shop or in your car waiting to pick up your kids. Or whatever.

Or you can take a photo. But I'm sure I don't have to tell you, it's an entirely different experience. There is this immediacy in working from direct observation that is immensely enjoyable and satisfying.

Even if the painting doesn't turn out, I get a kick out of trying to paint moving subjects.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Figure Studies in Black and White

Hey everyone~ I'm back! This has been the longest break in my blogging, ever! I can explain, but I'm not going to, because that would be a boring read.  Instead, let's just continue as if there was no break.

OK, so I had this brilliant idea to assign homework to my students in the figure drawing / painting class, which was to take a drawing done from life, 5 to 20 minute pose, and using it, do a black and white study in oil. 

It turned out to be a great exercise because it allows the student to work with paint and focus on values without being overwhelmed by color. It is hard enough learning to control values,  understanding the principles of light and shadow, rendering form, and just plain getting know how paint behaves. Addition of color just complicates the problem exponentially. I really think that it's not a bad idea to lay off color till you have a good command of all that other stuff. 

So I assigned this exercise to my class and we agreed it was very instructive. So I proposed that everyone should do a hundred of these. No deadline, just work at your own pace. The requirements were, that you had to use a short-pose drawing done from life as reference. Why? Because we all need more drawing practice. And, if we draw these 5 to 20 minute quick sketches with this assignment in mind, I thought, we are more likely to include the important information like gesture, light/shadow pattern and shadow edge indication, and leave out less important details and tedious rendering.

Not everyone in my class feels like they can put enough information down on paper in 5 to 20 minutes, so I'm also allowing drawings by Old Masters as references, but only if the student doesn't have his or her own drawings to work with. The point of the exercise is not to complete show-worthy pretty paintings in black and white, but to practice and learn.

Photos are not allowed as references, because unless the student is already adept at drawing from life, he'll just be copying values, and he won't be doing the seeing and analyzing necessary in translating a three dimensional object in space, onto a two-dimensional surface. It's a different way of seeing and thinking, so for what we are doing, I don't think photo references are very effective. 

Anyway, since I'm expecting people to do a hundred of these B/W studies, I figured I have to do 'em too, if only to show that I'm willing to walk the walk. 

So I've been doing that all summer, and I'm up to no. 60. Somewhere around number 45, we started using limited palette in the painting class, so I assigned extra studies. Do one in B/W only, and do another from the same reference, but using the palette used in class. (Black, White, Transparent Oxide Red for the first couple of times)  Needless to say, my production of B/W's slowed down because I'm having to do the brown ones too. But I'm not counting the brown ones as a part of the 100. 

Below is a typical sequence. Although I don't have a method that I rigidly follow and I do experiment with different approaches, this is one basic way to do a B/W study.

This is my reference. It's a 10 minute drawing on toned paper, using Sanguine and white pencils.

The information, as far as rendering form goes, is minimal. I've indicated the light and shadow pattern, Form shadow and cast shadow edges, a little bit of value shifts in the light side. The rest is gesture, described in line work.

 On loosely toned canvas, I started by drawing with a small brush, using black only. At the start I want to keep things very transparent, so I'm avoiding white. I also indicate where the shadows are, and block them in with black only. I'm using solvent (Gamsol) to thin the paint so it doesn't go on so dark and opaque.

The opaque block-in goes on top. First I have one light gray for all the lights, and one dark gray for all the shadows. (Except hair, which I saw as a separate dark mass).  After I blocked in the light side with one gray, I hit the highlights with a much lighter gray. This is essentially the value structure I have in the original reference; the white chalk represents the highlight areas within the light side.

Defining the halftone areas (darkest part of the light side, typically just before the form turns into the shadow side.) and starting to soften some edges so that the forms turn.

Also beginning to put some paint down on the fabric.

Here I've introduced a dark background, blocked in the foreground and began defining the folds in the  foreground. On the figure, the transitions from one value into another has become softer. I'm starting to manipulate the hierarchy of highlight strengths, so that I have a clear primary focal point, and other highlights of lesser strengths. This is a simple yet effective device to tell the viewer where to look.

And this is as far as I took this study. You can see how the strongest light is on her hip, and it drops away as we move farther away from that spot, creating a theatrical effect. 

I confess I have an ulterior motive for doing these studies. After just a few of these, I thought these studies would make excellent under paintings for later experimentation and process. I'm hoping to go back into each one of these studies, and develop at least some of them into more finished paintings. 

I'll show you more next time~

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Plein Air Paintings from Paso Robles

A Story Not Yet Written, 12 x 9 inches, oil on linen

A few weeks ago, I participated in the annual Paso Artsfest, a big celebration of the arts in the beautiful Paso Robles area of California. Some twenty artists were invited to paint in Paso Robles and its surrounding areas (and boy, there is so much to paint!) , and show our efforts at the end of the week.

I had a great time painting and hanging out with some of my friends who were also in the event. I used to get so stressed out doing these plein air events. Over the years I've done many, and have learned to just relax and enjoy it. Nowadays it's like a working vacation with a bunch of friends who speak the same language - my tribesmen. (and women) What's not to love?

OK so I did a handful of paintings in two and a half days. On the first morning, I woke up and noticed that it was very gray outside. Paso Robles is not far from the coast, so the foggy mornings are not surprising. Still, I was thinking of painting sunny views so I had to restrategize.  I like painting overcast landscapes too, but I was so out of practice that I felt like I needed something not so complicated. For me, direct light is somewhat easier than diffused light when I'm feeling rusty.

With a cup of tea in my hand I walked around town and found a cool little shop window display; A pretty dress lit up by halogen lights surrounded by a few colorful objects. It's basically a still life, right?  I set up immediately and painted it. It was a great subject for a warm up because nothing moved and the light was unchanging.

Later that day, I attempted to paint an old truck at an old radiator repair shop that I saw in town. This one didn't turn out so well - my drawing was sloppy, and the midday light was so flat and harsh, I couldn't see any subtle colors. Normally I would switch gears and start making up my own color schemes, but I was kind of stuck on painting it "as is", just to prove to myself that I can. Well, I couldn't. So I gave up after an hour and a half. I didn't wipe it though. I thought I could work on it later in the studio and come away with an OK painting. I'll post it when I get around to it.

Distant Thunder, 9 x 12 inches, oil on linen

I've learned to pace myself at these kinds of events. Plenty of break time is needed in between painting sessions to recharge the ol' mojo, or I just can't focus. So a burger, ice tea (no beer or wine until the work is done for the day!) and a nap before the third painting. I did notice the day before, when I was driving down from Sacramento, that there was this spectacular cloudscape in the afternoon toward the Eastern skies and I had hoped it would materialize again for me to paint. Truth be told, if it didn't happen, I was going to make it up anyway because it was just so beautiful.

Luckily, the clouds came back. I found a nice vantage point just outside of town on a  side of a dirt road, and painted those clouds. I could hear rumblings of distant thunder, and even lightning a couple of times as I painted. At one point it started raining so I just quickly pulled my easel under the back hatch of my SUV and continued to work.  I think it came out rather well.

Mission San Miguel, 9 x 12 inches, oil on linen

The next morning was gray too. If the previous day was any indication, I figured it would clear up by late morning. I drove out to Mission San Miguel, and started my painting. Just getting the drawing in and a bit of grisaille, anticipating the shadow patterns. I thought I'd get it all set up and go to colors once the sun came out. 

Well the block in didn't take long and the sun was not even close to coming out, so I turned my easel around and started another block in, of the view facing away from the Mission;

The Far Side of the Tracks, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen

And when the sun finally came out, I got first the Mission painting done, and then after lunch, painted The Far Side of the Tracks.

With the fog burning off and the blue skies intensifying incrementally, this was a very different sky scape from the last one. With this one, I wanted to get the feel of the hot, dry and dusty rural California landscape. I didn't change much of anything on this one - the barren hills are not much to look at, but it is what it is.

Wanderlust, 12 x 16 inches, oil on linen

And this is the last of the bunch. I set up on River Road in San Miguel, and painted in full sun, and considerable wind. Not the most comfortable of conditions, but hey, that's the nature of this game, no? The big clouds were back again, and I tried it one more time. I can't get enough of these cloudscapes! The photo shows more saturated purples than the actual painting - I'll try and get a better photo on my next shoot day.

It was a fun week hanging out with friends and painting, and even though the sales were less than ideal, I enjoyed it nonetheless. My only regret is that I didn't have time to go wine-tasting. There are some fantastic Pinot Noirs made in Paso Robles that I wanted to try, but not this time. May be I'll just take a painting trip down there on my own time, and do a little tasting then...

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Chameleon Couch

She Turned Away, Hiding Her Grin, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

I started this one with a model, working from observation for the first three hours. Notice the couch is blue - it's the same couch as the one seen in the last post, and in many others I've posted in the last few years. The actual couch is gray. I just make it different colors, largely on whim. Sometimes I cover it with colored (or not) fabric to get a feel for the color environment, but often I just respond to the color scheme that I've decided on at the start of the painting.

The shape of the couch varies in my paintings also. I can change the height of the couch back, whether it's straight, curved, or irregularly shaped.  It's not a big deal, really. The arms of the couch (not shown in this painting) are a little trickier to invent and transform, but with careful attention to perspective and with a little practice, that too, is doable.  If you want authenticity of style or detail,  of course the best thing to do is to get the furniture you actually need and set it up properly. But as you can plainly see in my case, the specifics of the furniture isn't what I'm after. 

The more generic the furniture, the easier it is to morph into something that works for many paintings. 

Having been an illustrator for many years, I'm comfortable working this way. Of course it doesn't always work out the way I envisioned, but the process of trying to get it right and failing at it, sometimes gives me pleasantly unexpected results. And sometimes it blows up in my face. But that's life~

The main thing is that I get the pose and the gesture that works. The edge of the seat, in this particular painting, has to be pretty convincing in terms of responding to gravity, and that's not made up, but if you notice that the two sides plunge towards the legs in slightly different angles? That is designed, not observed. So little things like that need to be considered everywhere if a painting were to be composed.  Mindlessly copying what we see, even if accurately done, will only give us an imitation of reality, lacking in artist's intent and expression. I think many a realist painters may disagree with me, but if you ask the best of them, they will tell you that good painting is not achieved by merely noodling the hell out of whatever they're trying to depict. 

But that's another day's topic. The following are a bunch of paintings featuring the same couch.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


Prologue,  16 x 20 inches, oil on linen

This is a recent painting that I did. 

It's 16 x 20 - a pretty good size–I'm trying to work larger of late. For reference, I used an old charcoal sketch - a 20 minute drawing, which had no color information so I made up the colors as I painted. I work this way often. I like the freedom of being able to imagine the colors and not being bound to what's in front of me. 

How long did I spend on this? May be 12 or 15 hours, over 4 or 5 sessions. I usually work a couple of hours at a time, and often at night under artificial light, so after a couple of hours, the glare on the paint surface becomes such that it's very difficult to see my strokes. I then stop, rather than fight it. I let it dry for a few days and come back to it.

When I use solvent to apply dark colors as transparent washes, the area dries matte and much lighter in value and looks completely different from areas which retained the glossy surface (because I didn't use solvent, for example)  A coat of Liquin (or any other painting medium) over the dried surface  brings back the values and lustre to the wet state, so I can judge values and colors properly. This is called oiling-in.

Often, when I come back to a dried painting to work on it some more, I end up putting paint over the whole thing, mainly because I'm looking for wet-into-wet strokes and you just can't fake that, even on top of a oiled-in surface. And I don't want to fake a stroke, anyway.

Some abstract strokes are done wet on dry. I look for opportunities to do this each time I come back to a dried painting. I love the sharp edges that look like it was masked with a frisket. But I want these areas to be integrated into wet-into-wet strokes, or juxtaposed against more brushy, textural strokes, so there's quite a bit of scraping and reapplying of paint of different viscosities and opacities.

At one point I had the shadow side of the figure, including the dress, much darker so as to lose the edges between these shadows and the cast shadow shape on the couch itself, connecting them. After going back and forth a few times, I decided to lighten the shadow on the dress. because the shapes flowed better. It could have worked with a dark shadow, too. Just not the same mood.

My process for abstraction varies, but often in the beginning stages, the painting looks pretty much straightforward alla prima. More or less traditional representational direct painting. If such a thing can be defined. What I mean is that I'm just painting reasonably "realistically" in terms of colors and values, and nothing really exaggerated. My strokes are not super tight, but not really all that loose either.

Abstraction happens slowly for me. First i'll lose one edge, then another. Then I might redefine a lost edge. Then I may lose it again. After a while, I'll get braver and start losing edges in unexpected areas. (Expected areas being dark shapes adjacent to each other) I may load up an area with color, and using a knife or a brush or a scraper or a finger, drag that paint into an area next to it, whether the color/values are close or not.  Then I may do the same from the other side back into the original shape. Obviously colors and edges become mixed in ways that has nothing to do with rendering of form, and this often brings about surprising results. It's easy to do this in areas of low risk, like the green couch into the dark background. Not so easy (psychologically) to do where drawing is critical, like the lit part of the figure into the background.

Naturally, I become protective of areas where it took a lot of work to get it to look like what it should, whether it be a head, or an arm, or something which requires careful perspective drawing like buildings and cars. Chances of losing all that hard work in an instant is very high, so it takes me a while before I work up the courage to do those areas.

But once I'm ready, I don't turn back. Because I can't. More often than not, cursing immediately follows the first try at this non-representational integration of adjacent shapes. Then I'm resigned to do it all over again by finding the more traditional, realistic depiction again- that is to say, I painted again realistically, so that I may take another whack at it.

The second time is easier. Because I'd been able to resurrect the believable head (or arm or car or whatever) once. I feel better about my capacity to repaint that difficult passage. And because I feel more confident, I'm willing to take the risk again, and this time, I may smoosh the areas with less trepidation, and that makes all the difference.

Truth be told, I sometimes have to repeat this process of painting representationally and deconstructing in a non representational manner, many, many times on one small area. If it's a labor intensive area like a human head or a hand, it can take a loooong time before I either concede defeat, or finally end up with something that works.

Seems to me like an awfully ineffective way to paint, but I haven't been able to find a way to speed things up. I guess because if I had a way to do this, that would be a formula which totally misses the point of my attitude toward abstraction. The process of abstraction for me, has to be exploration of the mysterious, grappling with something not entirely controllable, and the rush I get from going outside of my comfort zone and letting go of control.

So there. Did any of that make sense? I'm having a glass of wine as I type, so I'm not really sure if I'm actually articulating what's in my head, or whether I have anything in my head worth articulating. I'll read this tomorrow and find out!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"A California Spring" Opens This Saturday, May 3rd

Almost Forgotten, 9 x 13, oil on linen

If you are a fan of landscape paintings and you live in the San Francisco Bay area, you are in for a real treat. This weekend a group show titled A California Spring opens at Holton Studio Gallery in Emeryville, and it promises to be an exceptionally wonderful collection of landscape works by some very talented artists.

Just look at this line-up;

If you're familiar with the works of these artists and noticed a bias towards tonalist painters, you'd be right. Not that this is a tonalist show per se, but all of the paintings are framed by master frame maker Tim Holton's beautiful hand crafted frames, which go so well with tonalist landscapes. It's as if the paintings and the frames were made for each other.

Actually, they were. Tim studies each painting, and makes each frame from scratch, from selecting the wood to the finish detail to give the pieces the best possible presentation. That the frames themselves are works of art, goes without saying.  It's custom framing in the purest sense of the word. 

I, and I'm sure many of the other artists in this show, selected pieces with Tim's framing in mind, too. It's a true collaboration, and if you came to see the show, I think you'll agree in recognizing just how much framing matters. 

The opening reception is this Saturday, May 3rd, from 5 - 7 pm. If you're in the area, please come join us for a great art evening. See some great paintings, meet the artists, talk art, sip some wine.

'Hope you can make it!

5510 Doyle Avenue
Emeryville, CA 94608

Monday, April 28, 2014

So How Do You Know When To Stop?

Morning on Balboa Island, 9 x 12 inches, oil on linen do you know when to stop?, asked Kevin in the comments of my last post. The short answer is, When nothing in the painting bothers you. 

Obviously, if you see an error, you have to fix it. It's like creating an important document–a resumé, say–and you spot a typo. You wouldn't leave that alone, would you?  

One common tendency for intermediate painters is to put too much in the painting, thinking more detail somehow makes the painting better, more convincing, more realistic.  But just as you wouldn't put everything you have ever accomplished in your resumé (including that time you won the beer bonging competition at the fraternity), trying to put everything into a painting is a ridiculous idea. You have to stop somewhere. But where?

In a resumé, you include only relevant information, as clearly and concisely as possible, and edit out everything that doesn't pertain to the job you're trying to get. If a piece of information isn't going to help you get that job, you don't put it in. 

How do you know if a piece of information is relevant? You think about that job you're trying to get, and determine in that context, whether the information is relevant. You have to be clear about the purpose of this resume. You have to be clear about what you want to say, and say only the things that matter in this specific situation.

Painting is much the same. It's a form of communication, so you have to be clear about what it is you're trying to communicate. What do you want to say about this particular scene? That is your concept.  Your job is to communicate that concept, and nothing more. 

In my painting above, my concept was the mood created by the backlighting in the morning. I chose a boat to use as a focal point (one part of it, really) to achieve this. All the other boats were necessary to create the environment, but none of the details on these boats had anything to do with my concept. So I didn't paint any details.  The reflection of the main boat on the water was, in actuality, very clear and visually seductive. I could have painted that, but again, that wasn't my concept, so I played it down as much as possible. 

If you're clear about your concept, it will guide you in making decisions about what to include and what to edit out. You may have to put things in and take them out just to see whether they support your concept, and that may take a long time. In fact, I spent as much or more time doing that, as I do getting the painting to look like the scene in front of me. 

When at last you're satisfied that nothing more can be added and nothing more can be taken out, and you can't spot any errors (you may be able to the next day, or three years from now, but for now, to the best of your ability, you can't spot any errors), and you've scrutinized every shape, every color, every value, and every edge to make sure they can't be improved by your current abilities, you're done.

Know what you want to say, say it, and nothing else.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Start And A Finish

Arcadia, 12 x 24 inches, oil on linen

Two frequently asked questions are "do you tone your canvas?",  and "do you do a grisaille?" My answer is "yes, sometimes."

So when do I do these things and when do I not?  I don't have a rule set in stone and I tend to follow my whim about these matters, but I have found in general that toning the canvas and doing the grisaille is very helpful when I'm painting more tonally, or in a lower key.

The main reason for toning the canvas or doing the grisaille is to kill the extreme value (white) of the canvas so that when darker values are laid on top, we don't have distracting contrasts happening due to the bright white peeking through, in between brushstrokes.  This is especially annoying when I'm painting dark trees, and seems like more work than necessary to have to knock them back afterwards.

Obviously, the darker the value of a given area, the greater the contrast between it and the white of the canvas. And if the focal area happens to be very dark, the distraction is amplified.

You can use this to your advantage, if your painting subject or style requires a lot of contrasty texture in that area. My paintings tend to be more quiet so I don't want a whole lot of that kind of activity which takes away from my statement.

Having a tone underneath your colors also helps to unify and harmonize various areas of the painting by creating a common denominator of color or tone that is sprinkled throughout the surface. Of course this would be moot if you don't let the tone show through.

But even if you cover up every square millimeter of the canvas with thick paint, the tone underneath can help to keep your harmony in check as you develop the surface.

I keep my grisaille very simple and loose. It's basically a map of value organization. I try to express the design in three values, maybe four. It's very important to keep your value structure simple if you want the design to "read".  Too many values at this stage does nothing to organize the design - don't fool yourself (as I did in my early years) into thinking more information is better. The point is organization, not copying every value that you see.  Even if you're painting very realistically, the subtle values must happen within the simple value structure. Keep squinting to make sure your initial design doesn't become fragmented as you develop your picture. It should still be there in the finished painting.

Sometimes I use a neutral monochromatic tone for the underpainting, sometimes a color is used to help create color harmony, and sometimes complementary colors are used to create a color contrast in an area - sort of a vibrating effect. 

I don't usually do the complementary thing, as (again,) I'm looking for more of a quiet-ness in my painting and color vibrations create too much activity, but sometimes I use it in the foreground to bring that area come forward and accentuate the color saturation in that area. ...which is precisely what I did in the painting I'm showing above. The reddish brown tone under the green grass creates a rich color contrast in the foreground whereas in the background, I don't want that kind of activity because the atmospheric effect is more unifying.

So when do I not tone my canvas or do an underpainting? If I know I'm going to be painting in a more of a high-keyed, sunlight filled, impressionist approach,  I'll just go right in with colors on a white surface. The white peeking through my colors brightens the entire painting. Sometimes the contrast and texture is part of the subject matter, like the shimmering sunlight reflecting off of water's surface. I usually don't like to use gimmicky effects, but if it's effective and doesn't look gimmicky, I think it's OK.  If someone looks at my painting and says, "I love how you got that effect!", then it's too gimmicky. I want the viewer to say "what a beautiful painting", and not immediately focus on some technique.

Monday, March 31, 2014

You Win Some, You Lose Some

When you see an artist's work online,  typically you're looking at finished pieces that the artist deemed good enough to show. Sometimes you get to see demos and works in progress, but these too, are ones that eventually turned out good.

You rarely see failed paintings, do you? Of course not. why would anyone broadcast their failures? It's not good for your fragile ego, and it can't be good for marketing your brand.  

But any artist knows, and anyone seriously interested in any kind of art knows, that failures are a part of the game. The great artists aren't great because they make successful paintings all the time. They're great because they've had, and have learned from, more failed paintings than your average artist has had successful ones. I mean how does one hope to learn and get better if you didn't fail?

Truth be told,  I have more failed paintings than successful ones. That is to say, most of my paintings are never shown or sold.  

So today I thought I'd share a recent failed painting. Oh, don't worry about my fragile ego - this happens so often that it doesn't affect me so much anymore. (Yes, there was a time when every failed painting caused despair )

OK, so this painting is from a figure painting session last week.  I don't have shots of earlier stages, but we start here at the end of the three hour session. As a sketch, it was OK. It wasn't great, but it wasn't really bad. The drawing was reasonably accurate, and form and colors were OK too, if predictably boring. 

What I didn't like was the way her legs didn't have enough variation. Didn't have enough brush activity. Not just her leg, but the surrounding darks as well. The way the legs were positioned didn't create a shape that were strong enough to hold interest on its own, so I needed something more than shape. I tried a few different leg positions, but of course this being after the session had ended, I didn't have the model in front of me. Sometimes I can make stuff up. Sometimes, I can't. 

Her head is scraped off too, because I didn't like that it was too literal.  If you're familiar with my work, you know that, unless I'm doing a head study, I prefer not to get too specific with the features. This is because I'm not interested in creating a portrait and communicating a specific identity. What I'm interested in is more universal, so the specific identity would get in the way. I prefer to suggest anonymity.

 And then I had this idea to put a dress or a nightgown on her. The idea was to break up the boring single shape of the legs and create two different shapes in the leg area. The fabric, and the flesh of the lower leg.

I also turned the head away slightly (more anonymity, less identity), and gave her a dark hair and a dark background so that I could connect some like-valued shapes and simplify the head area. I also lightened the background behind the upper torso, to lessen the value contrast between the figure and the background.  I wasn't trying to paint any particular piece of furniture, just putting color/values down abstractly.

I crossed her lower legs, in an attempt to create a little more dimensional interest. The legs were profile view before, which was one reason it wasn't interesting enough.

Then I thought, hmmm. Too much suggestion of the environment. I need to make it simpler! So I extended that violet gray color in the background. I made it close in value to the face to lessen the impact there (again, less information) and lightened the hair mass so that the value contrast in that entire area is decreased for the same reason. Less information = more anonymity = more mystery.

The head got too big so I started reshaping it, and it kinda became a blob.  I thought too, that I lost too much contrast overall, so I brought back some darks in the background. I tried shortening the nightgown to show her knees which would give me an opportunity to show some anatomical information that I lost by clothing her.  And the balance of shapes would be better, overall.

But of course I can't paint anatomically convincing knees without a model, so...

At this point, I saw that it was deteriorating quickly. I lost too much information which I couldn't bring back because again, I can't always make up stuff.

I was getting sloppy and careless, so it was time to concede defeat.

And so this is where I stopped. Can I get a model to sit for me again in the same position and finish the painting? Yes, but I don't want to. I've exhausted my enthusiasm for this painting. The best thing to do is to wipe it clean while it's still wet, and reuse the canvas.

This was a painting which started out as a sketch, and became a vehicle for exploration, meaning I didn't have a real concept or a plan.  I think it's important to be clear about this. Because when you're exploring, you expect that sometimes (more often than not?) you don't find what you're looking for. IF you even know what you're looking for.

Many of my successful paintings are not done this way. I do a fair number of studies and planning when I do larger paintings, and with those I know where I'm going. When I fail with those, it hurts. But with an exploratory pieces like Miss Sadface here, I don't necessarily expect to have a show worthy piece so if it  blows up in my face, it really is not a big deal.

Being unrealistic with your expectations can really mess you up, ya know?