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?

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Galatea, 18 x 14, oil on linen

If you remember your Greek mythology from your high school days, you will know who Galatea is, and perhaps can guess at the significance of the title. For those of you who don't remember, here's the short version of the story;

There was this sculptor named Pygmalion, who was not interested in the women of his village because they were all prostitutes and he didn't want anything to do with them. So he created this life size sculpture, which was the image of his ideal woman.  She was so perfect that Pygmalion fell in love with her, and wished that she would come alive. Venus (Aphrodite) granted him this wish, and the sculpture came to life. They lived happily ever after. Her name was Galatea. 

Now I'm not painting any "ideal woman" nor did the painting come to life, but I thought the title–suggested by a friend who is more literary than  I–was apropos. 

Here's how it happened. I teach a weekly figure painting class, and one day the model didn't show up. This happens from time to time, and it is very annoying when a model doesn't show and doesn't even bother to call. Most of my models are awesome and very reliable and I appreciate all they do for me, but sometimes one of them turns out to be a little flakey.  

So the model doesn't show. I still have a class to teach.  I decide to set up some still lifes with plaster casts of sculptures. They're not replicas of great Italian sculptures or anything - they're props for still life painting classes. 

But that's OK. I have the students use them as references and paint. One curve ball I threw at them was that they had to paint them as if they were painting flesh, not plaster. They had to make up the flesh tones that they weren't seeing, which proved to be quite a challenge.

I did a little demo, and later on after class, I tried it again in my studio, using the same statuette. I worked on it for a few hours and abandoned it. It looked like a live model, but it was missing the artist's (that would be me) expression.

After several days, I came back to it and started putting more paint on the canvas. The surface was semi dry by this time. I began by putting more paint on the background, and started "cutting in" to the figure itself. As I became more comfortable, I became less worried about keeping the information that was already there.

And then I started repainting the figure, as well as the background, and generally pushing the abstraction. Most of my energy was spent on integrating the figure into the background.  After a day or so, I noticed that the integrating part was nice, but I lost the drawing. So I needed to go back in and find my drawing again.

And here is the redrawn canvas. The light is different (changing north light, cell phone camera) but you get the idea. I particularly didn't like the gesture of her arm, and the position of the foot. So I redrew the figure using a small brush and a dark color, and basically repainted the whole thing.

This is typical of my process. I find that I have to be willing to redraw and repaint any and every part of the painting at any given point, or I become too timid with my brush. And with a timid brush, I can only do timid paintings. 

So the plaster statuette became this fleshy semi-abstracted nude. I'm still not in love with her, but I love the painting. I thought Galatea was a good title for it. 

Am I Pygmalion then? I have no feelings about that. But the concept Pygmalion effect is interesting. It refers to the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy. If you expect yourself to be great, you will be great. Or at least, you will perform to meet those higher expectations. 

We artists are always disappointed because our expectations are always higher than what we can achieve. But it is also true that because our expectations are always higher, we continue to improve. It's just that the progress is so damn slow and inconsistent, we become frustrated. But if you keep trying to meet your expectations, you will improve.  The trick is not to dwell on how you didn't meet your expectations, but to recognize how far you've come since began this journey. You'll see that despite obstacles and wrong turns, you are definitely making progress.  It's about the journey, after all.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Recent Cityscapes

To And Fro, 14.5 x 24, oil on linen

Well it's been a few weeks since my last post. This season have been super busy for me. Since the new year, I've taught three workshops, and have participated in three group shows. This on top of my weekly classes so I've just been swamped. 

In the next few months, I have more openings coming up; The California Art Club's 103rd Gold Medal Exhibition, A group show at the California Museum of Fine Art, Paso Robles Festival of the Arts Signature Exhibition, another group show at the Holton Studio Gallery, and the annual auction at the Crocker Museum. It's madness!

Producing paintings for these shows has been a challenge to say the least, but the pressure and time constraints caused me to focus more, and I'm happy to say I'm liking my recent paintings very much.

The piece at the top is one of my favorites. I was able to move my brush more freely, not confining myself to defined and definite shapes. That's key to good painting (strictly in the context of my painting journey) and it's one step closer to letting go of rules and structure and painting intuitively. 

For me, and for great many, that is about the hardest thing to do in painting. It's pure jazz, is what it is. I have only had glimpses of this improvisational jazz state in my work, but I feel that with this one, I was in it a good long time. 

The next two may look familiar to you; I've taken cues from an earlier blog post, and actually did new versions from a detail shots of a larger cityscape painting. One big difference between these and the previous cropped versions is that I did not do a careful drawing to begin with. I didn't even grid these. I just went in with loose washes and slowly found my shapes as I developed the painting.

Pursuit, 11 x 14, oil on linen

I like the abstract nature of the marks I got with this freehand method. Although working on large cityscapes this way still fills me with doubt and trepidation. These were just 11 x 14, so I felt more confident. I mean if I screwed them up, no big deal. I can start over without too much damage to my self confidence, whereas on a big canvas, it might really hurt.

Ride, 11 x 14, oil on linen

I like to go back to something I did years ago, and try to do a new version of it to see how different it would turn out. My work is always evolving, and I would hope that I'm getting better at this painting stuff. 

Now that I'm pushing abstraction more and more, it's really interesting to see how I'm solving the same problems differently. The painting below is a new one, but I first tackled it 10 years ago. I no longer have that one but I distinctly remember working on it. I was happy with the painting but I know it was much tighter than this new version. The subject matter is the entrance to the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi, where I visited during my month long residency in Umbria.

Visiting St. Francis, 14 x 11, oil on linen

The shapes of the architectural detail, while not precise, still need to be reasonably convincing. Which is a problem because in trying to define those shapes accurately, the abstraction aspect is completely compromised. And the reverse is true, too, if you push abstraction, you sacrifice reality. So achieving some sort of balance was the big challenge in this painting. It took several alternating layers of  accuracy of representation and abstraction/ deconstruction. I wish I could just jump into abstraction from the get go, but I don't even know how that works so I gotta do it the slow way.

Night Ride, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen

A rare nocturne from yours truly. Actually when I started, it wasn't a nocturne. It was moody, but more like an overcast day. Too many of the elements were more visible, fighting for attention, and I was stuck. Darkness and shadow are wonderful devices to simplify a busy composition (I hesitate to even use that word because if it were actually composed I wouldn't have had the problem) and inject mystery and mood. I don't do too many nocturnes because I feel like I could easily become too dependent on the darkness as a device of convenience. And besides, I like painting daylight.

The Philosophers, 11 x 14, oil on linen

The red umbrellas,backlit figures, and strong silhouettes. Do I need anything more? This had all the elements of a strong atmospheric painting, it pretty much painted itself. The only thing that I had to really figure out was the value relationship between the foreground and the background. Light on dark, dark on light, or the same values. The shirts were light and the pants were dark, so by positioning the background shapes carefully, I could have all three relationships happening. It's just a couple of values so it's nothing tricky, but it worked really well. I was happy.

All of these paintings are on display at the Randy Higbee Gallery in Costa Mesa, CA. I am showing with my friends Simon Addyman and Tom Balderas, who are both very talented painters. we three have very different styles but together, the works create a kind of fascinating harmony. I drove down South for the opening this past weekend, and it was great to see them displayed so beautifully. 

The show is up for a few weeks, so if you're in the area, please check it out. It's a fantastic show!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Some Thoughts on Composition

The Regulars, 9 x 12, oil on linen

When you read about  composition in art books, you get all the usual advice about not putting a focal point smack in the middle of the canvas, dividing the canvas into thirds or fourths, the Golden Section, Fibonacci numbers, etc. Those are all good things to know,  (though frankly,  I don't know  why the Golden Section is significant nor do I know how to apply it to my work) but not always practical. 

You can crop a view so that the focal point falls on the third, but if doing so causes something else to fall where you don't want it to, it's not going to do much good.  When all is said and done, designing a painting is something the artist does to communicate his intent as best he can, and you can't do that by following a formula.  Composition must support the concept, and if it means tweaking value structure, colors, edges and application of paint to achieve that, then that's what we must do. In fact, tweaking is to weak a word. Design is a holistic, subjective activity, and not merely a matter of making small changes.

As I mentioned above, there are no formulas. But there are some really good practical tips about composition. Years ago I've scribbled a bunch of them on sticky notes and stuck them all over my easel to remind me. They don't necessary apply to every painting, but at the very least, they give me something to think about and design my paintings with more awareness and care.

-Unequal distribution of dark and light masses. Don't make them 50 - 50.
-Have one dominant color. Additional color masses need to be clearly lesser in visual impact.
-Use a variety of edges on every shape. Lose an edge on every shape if you can.
-Paint the concept, not things.
-Have a hierarchy of interesting areas.
-Manipulate this hierarchy with value contrast, hue choices, saturation, edges, opacity, impasto, brush activity, and textures.
-Big passive area vs. small active area
-You don't need two big passive areas. 
-If the focal point is in light, simplify the shadow. If it's in shadow, simplify the light.
-If the focal point is in light, lower the key. If it's in shadow, raise the key.
-Connect shapes wherever you can. (Same thing as losing edges) 
-Whenever you break a rule, make sure it looks intentional.
-Repetition and variation. Over do them. Then pull back.
-Less is more. 
 -Make Only One Statement! 

Some of these seem not to pertain strictly to composition, but in my mind, everything affects composition. If you are clear about what you want to say with your painting (the concept), and make sure everything you do supports this concept, and nothing you put in is irrelevant, you are  well on your way to designing good pictures.

Oh, and at the very top of my big studio easel, I have written in big black letters the word MYSTERY. It's a reminder for me not to put too much detail, information and identity (of the subject) into my painting. It helps me not to spell everything out for the viewer. It reminds me to paint clues, not answers, when I'm designing a picture.

I am currently waiting for the arrival of my new easel. The first thing I'm going to do is to christen it by writing MYSTERY across the top. I can't wait!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How Do You Make Your Greens?

Homeward, 11 x 14, oil

I'm often asked about my palette, and in particular what greens do I use to paint my trees?

I don't actually use tube greens on my palette. I mix all my greens from the primaries. Typically, I have two or three kinds of each of the primaries, plus white, and I can mix all the colors I need from them.

My blues are Ultramarine, Cerulean, and Ivory Black.  That's essentially a reddish blue, a greenish blue, and a low chroma blue.

Sometimes I use Cobalt instead of Ultramarine. Cobalt isn't really reddish blue, true, but it's still closer to violet than Cerulean.

Sometimes I use Prussian Blue instead of Cerulean. Prussian, like Phthalo is a very strong color and just a teeny bit will go a long, long way. If you're not careful it'll blow up in your face. So to speak. Cerulean is a much gentler, yet rich color and user friendly. I do recommend my students to use Cerulean until they've become very comfortable mixing colors.

My yellows - I have a cool yellow, a warm yellow and low chroma yellow; Cadmium Lemon, Cadmium Yellow Deep, and Yellow Ochre.

Sometimes I just mix a warm yellow with Cadmium Lemon and TOR (Transparent Oxide Red), which gives me a nice rich warm yellow, and one less tube to carry.

Yellow Ochre is really handy, since mixing a darker value yellow can be a bit of work.

With these blues and yellows, you can mix them in different combinations to get all kinds of greens very quickly. Ivory Black and Cad Yellow makes a beautiful rich dark olive green. So does Ultramarine + Yellow Ochre. Cerulean + Cad Lemon makes a brilliant light green.

Just lay a couple of yellows and greens out on your palette and play around with it. You may be surprised at what you can mix when you're not trying to mix any specific color.

Add to these greens the reds, and of course the white, and you have further expanded the scope and the complexity of possible greens.

Tube greens are convenient, to be sure, but if you find that all the greens in your landscape paintings starting to look too similar, may be it's time to ditch those tube greens and start mixing them from your primaries.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sketches Along the American River

Thanks so much for all the thoughtful comments on my last post! I'm glad to know that it resonated with many of you.  I can never tell if anyone's reading my blog posts so your feedback really does keep me motivated. So thanks again!

I live near the American River, just outside of Sacramento. The river is a short walk from my house and my studio, and thanks to the conservation efforts of various organizations, there are stretches along the river which are left undeveloped.  Much of these areas are accessible through parks and miles of trails, and great painting spots are found all along the river.  

Last year I taught a weekly landscape class and for most of the sessions I took the class out to the river and we painted en plein air. These are some of the paintings from those sessions, plus some sketches which were just solo expeditions.

All of these began as plein air sketches. Some were painted on the spot in its entirety. Others were worked on in the studio afterwards, may be one or two hours. I think a few of them are done in the studio as variations of plein air sketches. 

I've shown this one before. And some of the others too, you may remember from before I messed up my blog and lost all the images. (So here they are again!)  

Typically, I don't start with the sky as some artists do. When I do a demo, someone always asks why I don't paint the sky first. It seems logical to paint from back to front rather than painting around complex small shapes, doesn't it?  My answer is that it doesn't matter which you paint first, the sky or the tree. Unless you have such control over shapes and edges that you can put down the tree on top of the skye perfectly on the first pass. I've yet to meet anyone who can do this consistently. Oh sure, anyone can put a tree on top of a sky in one pass, but I'm talking about a tree with GOOD, DESIGNED shapes.

Here's the thing. whether you start with the sky or the tree, chances are, you'll have to go back and forth between the two to refine edges and the shapes. Sometimes it comes together quickly, but other times, I spend hours shaping one tree.  

If you're going back and forth to get that tree just so, why does it matter with which you start? It's just  a matter of preference and comfort zones. I like to start with the tree because throughout the process, I like to maintain the value relationships of the various elements in my picture. My tree is almost always darker than the sky, so at every stage I want the tree to be darker than the sky. If I started blocking in the sky first, on white canvas, the sky would be darker at that point. A transparent block-in (grisaille) would solve this problem,  to be sure, but I don't do a very dark grisaille if I know the painting is going to be high keyed.

Also, in terms of color, I prefer to key the sky color to those of the trees because typically, the trees (or another visual element on the ground) would be the focal point(s) of the painting, and the sky plays the supporting role to the tree(s).  I think it makes sense to dress the star of my picture first, then decide on what the supporting cast would wear so that together, they bring out the best in my star.

When I do paint the sky first–and on occasion I do– my intention is to set a tight harmony by keying everything to the color of the ambient light.  In these cases, the color of the light / atmosphere is the main star, not the trees (or the barn, or the cars).

Here's a case where the tree is lighter than its background. The background is not the sky, obviously, but would it make sense to get the background going first, in this case? Yes, because at the block in stage, the background would be already darker than the lighter green foliage on the tree. 

Again, it's just a preference. I really don't think it matters all that much which you paint first. One thing that I do tell my students is don't paint around teeny shapes like that tree branch in this picture. Get the big shapes down, get the big relationships established, then paint the small things on top of it, then manipulate the edges so that the small things look integrated into the big things, not pasted on top.

This is a very tonal painting. A near-monochromatic painting like this has a simple structure, and I like to keep it that way for very atmospheric paintings like this. This was the focus of my workshop back in January.  I think this is easier than using a full spectrum,  but apparently some find it easier to use more color than less. That boggles my mind, but hey, it's a good thing that we have different ways of seeing and understanding color. Makes for a fascinating diversity in our expressions.

This one was done in the studio, but I did two earlier versions on location, both of which I used as references to paint this one. The important thing I noted about this particular painting is not the trickiness of painting submerged rocks (which is kinda nifty, I agree, but it's not as difficult as you might think) The important thing was to decide which was going to be the dominant color; the green of the water, or the red of the rocks.

My earlier versions had much redder rocks because they actually were pretty red. But as a painting, I needed one or the other to be dominant. Not both, competing with each other. When I figured that out the painting came together much more satisfactorily. But it took hours of work (two sketches on location, and a few hours staring at them) to figure what was wrong with my earlier efforts.

The stroke direction on these ball-shaped bushes follow the growth pattern. I look at how the branches (leaves, sprigs) radiate out from the epicenter, and mimic their growth. This shows the characteristics of these plants. 

I don't always follow growth patterns when I'm painting, even if I were painting these bushes, I might emphasize form instead, as if they were beach balls. Or I might put down my strokes in a parallel manner, in the direction of the falling sun light. It all depends on what you want to emphasize in your painting, which means you have to know what you want to say with your painting before you start. 

Submerged rocks again. What makes them look submerged? They're the color of the water. What makes them look like rocks? Darker, shadow areas that reveal the rock shapes. The rest is context. See? there's no trick to painting these. Just use your eyes without presumptions. 

Painting with my back to the river. This painting's color structure is more imposed than observed. I took cues from what I saw, but tightened the harmony to the point it was almost monochromatic. That's key to painting tonal atmosphere. You can't have both a tonal structure AND a lot of impressionist color, even though many try. That's like mishmashing two different languages. You may know what you're trying to say, but you'll confuse everyone else.

Our stretch of the American River isn't like the Sacramento Delta further down south. This view actually had a lot of trees along the far bank which I didn't paint. I wanted to paint the delta, but I couldn't make the trip down at the time, so I just used my local view as a jumping off point and reimagined the environment. Creative license. To be sure, I've painted the delta on location many times so I have a pretty good visual vocabulary in my noggin. 

Even if you never paint from imagination, building your visual vocabulary is very important for a landscape painter. It helps to make your painting better than nature because you are able to tweak this and refine that. In my experience, Mother Nature rarely gives us perfect compositions. Designing a painting is always a matter of imposing our vision onto a view. If we're only copying nature, that'll never happen.

The blue of the water is what attracted me to this view. I used it in the foreground grass, and also in the cast shadows on the trunks of the white birch (?) tree. I needed to sprinkle the blue around like this to make sure that the water didn't look isolated. Because it's just a big shape with no identifiable feature (shape itself doesn't tell us what it is) it needed to be in context for it to make sense. The tree and the grass provide that context, but still it was lacking something. Since I couldn't change the shape of it, I expanded the role of the color. It makes for a better color harmony and thus unity, too.

This one and the next one is a few years old, but I included them in this post just because I painted them along the river. In both cases, the cloud shapes mimic the trees. Not exactly, of course - that would look too obvious and silly. But the idea is to repeat the rhythmic shapes of the main element. 

When painting sky with clouds, I determine whether the clouds or the blue (in the above painting, green) part of the sky is dominant. If it's mostly clouds and only a small part of the blue is showing, which is the case in the two pieces above, I block in the whole thing with cloud color, and poke holes with the blue.  I then come back and work back and forth to refine edges and shapes, so by the time I'm done, it doesn't necessarily look like I painted the blue on top of the clouds. 

If the blue sky is bigger and the clouds play a smaller role, like in the painting below, 

I may paint the whole thing with blue (with variations) and float clouds on top of it.  But again, I typically go back and forth till I'm satisfied with the shapes and edges. 

The tree on the bluffs is iconic around these parts. The view from up there is spectacular. I have painted from there before, but have never taken a class there because I'm afraid someone would fall off. And people do fall off from time to time. I cringe every time I go up there and see young people sitting on the edge, dangling their feet and drinking beer or smoking pot (or whatever).

More color in this painting. Juxtaposing very loose, expressive and abstract strokes against tighter, representational form (trunk, branches) was what I was after in this one.  I don't actually remember what made me paint it so high key. May be it was a high key demo?

And then there's this gray painting. A gray day means there's no strong directional light. I can't use the light and shadow pattern to drive the design, so the value structure has to come from light and dark local values.  Light & shadow vs. light & dark. There's a big difference there, and it's important not to confuse the two. The darks in this case doesn't come from sunlight casting shadows, but they are dark because the objects themselves are dark. 

Also, what's missing in gray day conditions is the presence of distinct cast shadows.  To rephrase it, if you want a painting to look sunny, include cast shadows with sharp edges.  It's not light values or bright colors that makes a painting look sunny, it's the presence of distinct cast shadows. 

Thanks for putting up with this long post! I just started rambling on about each of the paintings and it just kind of got out of hand. 

Anyway, if you enjoyed these views and found comments informative, you may be interested to know that I'll be conducting a workshop next month at some of these locations. It'll be a plein air painting workshop and we'll be talking about these and many other issues about landscape painting and painting en plein air. The American River offers some great views (as you can see) along the Sacramento area, and we'll have a great time slinging painting on its shores.  If you'd like to join us, please contact Debbie at the School of Light and Color. As of this posting we still have spaces in this workshop!

The American River en Plein Air 
March 8 - 9, 2014

Please see my workshop page for more info on the workshop.

The School of Light and Color
phone: (916) 966-7517

Paint on!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Making of a Cityscape

Last fall, I did this cityscape commission for a private collector. At 34 x 46, it was a fairly good sized painting, and I had great fun working on this. I don't do commissions unless it's the kind of painting that I would do anyway– that is, with or without a client. 

One of the main reasons why I no longer take illustration commissions (I was an illustrator for 17 years) is that I got tired of fulfilling someone else's vision, so if I went back to being art-directed by a client, it kind of defeats the purpose of my being a fine artist. Fortunately, there are collectors out there who understands that to get the best possible work out of an artist, the artist needs the freedom to create. My client was one such collector, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to create this painting with complete freedom. It was smooth sailing all the way!

I recorded a few process shots along the way and I noticed I had some studies as well, so I thought I'd share them here, and talk a little bit about my working methods.

First thing I did was to work up a pencil sketch.  The sketch pad is 11 x 14 so you can get a sense of the size of this sketch. I used three different reference photos. One for the environment, another for the trolley, and another for the car on the right.  Because all three photos were taken from a similar position, the perspective was more or less consistent. I tweaked them a little to fit, but that wasn't a big deal.

The pencil wasn't very dark, and it being a linear tool, it would have taken forever to achieve the kind of tonalities I was looking for. So I scanned the sketch into my computer, and using Photoshop, took it further.  Most of my illustrations were done with Photoshop and Wacom tablet, so painting digitally is well within my comfort zone.  

This is what I presented to my client, before moving on to paint. 

We discussed how the finished piece might be displayed in the client's home,  and we had decided that it wasn't going to be framed. Instead, I would use a thick 2 1/4 inch stretcher bars and wrap the linen around its sides, and paint the edges black for a more contemporary presentation. 

While waiting for my stretcher bars to arrive, I worked on some value studies on 6 x 8 panels just so I can become familiar with the tonal structure and the overall feel of the composition.

I did several such studies, and I can't remember in what order I did them, but I was trying to answer the question, just how much or how little color is needed for a monochromatic painting to start feeling not monochromatic. 

You see, a purely monochromatic painting doesn't have any color, so color temperature shifts from light to shadow (warm to cool) is irrelevant. But as soon as you add just a little bit of temperature shift, it becomes a color painting in which the color of the light source becomes extremely important, whether it's obvious or subtle.

And I was looking for that tipping point, or if there was such a thing.  So I started with just black and white, then tried a few different blacks, then added a little warmth in the white, and pushed the coolness in the shadow a little bit, as you see in the image below.

The black in this case was Paynes Gray, which is a lot bluer than Ivory or another black.

Then I decided to do some in brown, or sepia. Since I knew I wanted a very warm tonal painting, it was necessary for me to do some studies to get a feel for it.

This one is brown, black and white. (except for the tail lights and the yellows) Basically a monochromatic structure, with just a little hint of temperature shift that you can see in the big cast shadow on the building on the right. I wasn't looking for precision obviously. But this is still monochromatic and I don't feel a sense of natural light. 

I added more warmth in the lights, which separates the light and shadow colors a bit more. 

The color scheme of this one and the previous one is the same, except in the previous one, the sky is lighter than the buildings. In this last one, the buildings are lighter. Flipping those values makes a big difference in the climate conditions, and thus the mood. I ended up with the lighter sky in the end. 

I also made a bunch of value scales just to see how the dark color and light color combinations looked.  On the dark side are some combinations of Transparent Oxide Red and various blacks,
and on the light side is Titanium white and Yellow Ochre in varying amounts.  Again, I was looking for at what point does warm / cool become an issue?

I didn't arrive at an answer, but doing these value charts gave me a pretty good idea of which direction to take the painting.

After assembling the stretchers and securing the canvas (Claessen's 66) on it, I proceeded to transfer the drawing onto it by gridding. I made a grid on the sketch in Photoshop, and a corresponding one on the canvas and proceeded to draw the more critical lines. 

I don't draw every little detail at this point. Just the landmarks and lines that are likely to be difficult to to find by freehand later on. Perspective lines need to be accurate, so I made sure I got those in.  I also indicated some windows on the buildings. 

Using thin paint (black+transparent oxide red), I started in with some darker values. To thin the paint, I'm using Gamsol and Liquin. 

I went ahead and pushed the darkest darks. I knew that much of the bottom part of the painting would end up very dark and shadowy, so it would be easier to get that established early. As you can see, I tried not to lose the lines on the street's surface.  That didn't last long. I ended up losing all of it, and had to bring it all back later. Which turned out to be not as big a chore as I'd thought, since the vanishing point was clear. Would have been much more tedious if it were a two point perspective. 

This is the finished painting. Sorry, I completely forgot to take photos after the grisaille.  But I just went in with  opaque colors, and pushed and pulled with brush, rag, scrapers, palette knives, and my thumbs. As is typical of my cityscapes, I painted it in several layers of unplanned attacks. Not a neat, sequential technique, but just going in and dealing with what seems most obvious. All the time trying to balance the representational and the abstract.

Here are some detail shots:

Sometimes I let the layers dry completely between sessions. Other times, I work right into semi-dry painting. If I want to do a clean glaze or a stain, I let it dry first. If I'm going in with more opaque, I don't necessarily wait for it to dry completely.

Some thick paint action with palette knife. It looks like I glazed afterwards too.

The big car. This could be another painting just like this, huh? I like this composition. I tried very hard to not literally describe things. Most of the shapes are abstract suggestions, and not depictions. The dark shadow helps to simplify  much of the boring stuff. 

Same with the trolley side of the street. The photo reference showed a lot more detail in the shadows. I could clearly see the tires and the hubcaps on the parked cars. I no longer have the photo reference, but suffice to say that having done all the studies really helped me to see just how little information was needed in this area and still make it convincing. 

So if you suffer from putting-too-much-detail-in-your-painting syndrome, do a bunch of studies where you vary the amount of detail. You'll see that less really is more.