Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Kevin Courter Nocturne Workshop at Terry Miura Studio!

It seems like every post begins with Boy, it's been so long since my last post! and then I list excuses like I've been busy. I guess I just have to accept that I'm undisciplined - haha~

But here's some news worth sharing - my good friend Kevin Courter (if you don't know his work, you should. Check out his work on his website) will be teaching a three-day workshop towards the end of July, at my studio!

This workshop will focus on painting nocturnes. Join the workshop and learn how Kevin approaches the subject matter and creates his evocative evening and night scenes. It's more than color mixing - learn what really goes into a beautiful nocturnal landscape. 

For more information and to sign up, please go to Kevin's website. The workshop link is here.

This is a rare opportunity to learn from one of the best. Don't miss it!

Friday, March 4, 2016

How It Began To Tell

It Begins To Tell, 24 x 24 inches, oil on linen

OK so let's do another process thing. This painting, It Begins To Tell has had a history of sorts. Originally, it was a cityscape painting that I did for a show several years ago. After it came back from the show, it hung in my studio for a long time until I decided I didn't want to look at it anymore. So I painted over it - not that I needed to reuse the canvas, but I always find it cathartic to work on top of a painting that no longer works for me, but I still feel precious about it only because I spent so much time on it. It's kind of like terminating a relationship that's not working. It's liberating, and to give it a new life is invigorating. Here's the original painting: 

It didn't take long to cover the canvas. I was trying to do this male nude piece using a figure drawing from another session. Though I spent many hours on it, coming back to it time and again, I couldn't make it work. It just got more and more muddled and I finally decided to terminate this relationship, too.

The little black and white sketch next to the blue painting is the reference sketch for the next incarnation. The square canvas is 24 x 24.

I drew a grid on the canvas and roughly transposed the drawing, positioning it so that I'd cut off half her head - something I notice I like to do. (I did that to the blue figure too!)

I used a brush and a brown color (Asphaltum I think?) to draw the figure. Not super precise, but accurate enough to not look incorrect.

Then I used the same brown color to block in the shadow areas, so I can see the figure and the light / shadow pattern better.

I mixed two puddles on the palette, one for shadow and one for light, and blocked in the shadow side. I knew that the color would look completely different and wrong on the blue canvas, so I made sure the color relationship between the two puddles worked on a neutral surface (my palette) and trusted that it'll work out eventually, even if it looked weird in the blue context.

Then I blocked in the light side. See? It looks a little better now. The block in is very simply done. There are no subtle variations in colors, values, or edges. I like to start with simple block ins like this, and then work toward subtlety and complexity, rather than start off with all the variations and carefully building small areas. 

Here you can see I started modeling the lit side a little, by introducing a few value shifts. Forms start to turn and some anatomical information is indicated.

I started to knock in a dark background.  I haven't at this point committed to having a dark background, but seemed like a good time to try it.  The figure is modeled some more, and keyed up in value a bit. I was looking for more contrast for the sake of impact. 

I decided to go ahead and cover the background. I continued keying up the figure - I lost a lot of information in doing so, so I needed to redraw some areas. 

Hmmm. What if I had a light back ground on the light side, so that I can lose some edges?  Let's try it! I pulled some paint across using a scraper, and proceeded to push more paint around. Kind of interesting. 

I started to redefine some of the anatomical information. Some of the values are keyed back down, in the interest of creating a hierarchy of importance and impact. (Didn't want every part of the body to have the same impact)

Extended the light back ground to the shadow side, separating the figure from the background.  This looked interesting, and I thought may be I should pursue this. I went back and forth a few times. 

But in the end, the mood created by the dark background won. I reworked all areas and finally ended up with this.

I reworked all parts of the painting, and as the paint got thicker the figure became more abstract. I started to lose some of the drawing but I was OK with that. It felt to me like the distortions were necessary and "right" in this particular context. Which was puzzling to me because normally I don't like to distort the drawing. Perhaps I've opened a new door to another path to abstraction? Who knows? I really liked what I ended up with, so that's that.

By the way, the title, It Begins To Tell, is a reference to Thelonious Monk's jazz classic Round Midnight. Something I was listening to when I was painting this. I think it influenced my decision to go with the dark background.

The painting now hangs in California Museum of Fine Art in Los Angeles. I'm happy about that, too.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Anatomy of a Landscape Painting

I did another guest-blogger thing recently, this time on my friends Kim Van Der Hoek and Kelley Sanford's In the Artist Studio, a very informative art blog where they have this feature called Ask the Expert. You can find some excellent tips on this blog so I encourage you to check it out. 

The following is my contribution to In the Artist Studio, reposted here on Studio Notes. Hope you find it interesting!

I’d like to do a little analysis on some conscious decisions that I made along the way on a recent landscape painting that I did. The ideas I’m sharing may not be new to you, but hopefully they will serve as a reminder to be mindful of the “basics” no matter whether you’re a beginner or a much more experienced painter.

Back on the Road, 18 x 36 inches, oil on linen

The painting, Back on the Road, is a studio piece, and it is entirely invented. I have done similar scenes on location so I had a very clear idea of the kind of mood I wanted and what I needed to do to achieve it. 

The design is not particularly innovative or unique. I have the horizon splitting the canvas near the middle, a road taking the viewer into the picture, the big tree just off center. These are all common design elements and would be pretty boring if we didn’t do something to alleviate the predictability. 

You’ve all heard this good advice; “Don’t put the horizon right in the middle.” Why not? because it’s boring to have the canvas split in two equal halves. I agree. so why not just make them unequal by giving a lot more visual weight to one half. Sure the horizon may go right across the middle, but  all the dark masses, textures, colors, brush activity, perspective, manmade objects are on one half, and the sky as the other half serves as a big passive area, with very more subdued range of values, colors, etc.  That makes the two halves not equal.  Far from it. If you make sure that the visual impact of the two halves are unequal, having the horizon right across the middle is a non-issue, in my book. 

The road leading the viewer into the picture is a common device, too. In order to make it more interesting, I  made road curve and also go up and down small hills. Every time the road turns or the incline changes, I had to plot a new vanishing point. So the road alone has at least five–may be six–vanishing points. Tedious? Yes. Basic? Yes. Worth the effort? Yes!

The big tree is near the center, but just a little off to the right. That is a very basic design decision. However, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with having your focal point in the center, as long as it looks absolutely intentional and not because you forgot to think about it. 

Again, how you place the rest of the visual elements to create an interesting arrangement becomes critical.  

But don’t forget; just because the focal point can be in the center doesn’t necessarily mean it should be. If moving the focal point off-center allows you to improve the design, and allows you to make your statement more clearly or efficiently, by all means, don’t leave it in the middle!

 The lightest part of the sky is behind the big tree to create a greater contrast.

OK, so the big tree is my focal element. I spent a lot of time shaping that thing so that it had a good, strong silhouette.  But a strong shape doesn’t by itself make it a focal point. It needs contrast! I always think in terms of value contrasts first, so I made sure I had unmistakable value contrast at my focal point. You can see the sky behind the dark foliage is lighter than the areas flanking it. In this way, I consciously used maximum value contrast, strong silhouette, (relatively) sharp edges, and selective color (more intense yellows and oranges in this area, only), and detail (the silhouette of the foliage has much smaller shapes and calligraphic interest than any other tree) all to support my main focal point. 

There are several distinct, albeiet close, value steps in the clouds.

If you take a closer look at the sky, you can see the variations in color and value. From the lightest apricot color behind the big tree, to the shadow colors (5) and (6), there are several steps from lightest to darkest. 

Also consciously modulated are the intensity of these variations. I put the highest chroma at (1), and made sure the others didn’t outshine that color. 

I pushed the color toward red at (3) and (4). To do this, I added Cadmium Red and Alizarin to the mix. Which makes the color redder, but since these redsvare so intense, it was necessary to also knock the saturation down a notch by adding a tiny bit of blue as well.

Using softer edges for form shadows, and sharper edges for cast shadows and lit edges.

Now let’s look at forms in the sky. Because these cloud masses are dense, the light hitting them reveals forms, much like solid objects. By imagining where the clumps are forming, we can decide where light and shadow patterns go.  Since the light is coming from the right (see the cast shadows of the telephone poles?)  the right side of any “clump” would be lit, and the left side and the bottom of the same cloud mass would be in shadow. 

I tried to break up the forms a little bit, to make it more fluffy and organic, but the form principle is intact. As for edges, where you would expect to see a form shadow edge–that is, where the form turns away from the light into the shadow, I used softer edges because there is a transition from light to shadow. This includes forms turning under. 

See, it’s not so different from painting simple spheres. 

Where the lit edge shows up against a darker cloud, the edges are sharper. However, because we are talking about cloud masses, even the sharper edges aren’t razor sharp; they look sharper just in comparison to the softer turning edges. It’s all relative.

Notice the sharpest edge in the clouds are used near the focal area. Another device to bring the eye there.

So as you can see, there is a pretty good range of colors and values in the sky, and each of these variations are used purposefully, whether to highlight the focal area, or to show that the form has a shadow side, or to provide a transition between light and shadow.

Violets in the clouds taken out of context.

It does looks like many hues are represented; yellow, yellow orange, orange… all the way to a blueish gray in some of the shadow areas of the clouds. But as you know, colors are relative. What appears violet in this context may surprise you when taken out of context.

The two shadow colors may look violet in the picture, but if I had just mixed red and blue on the palette and stuck it on, it would be completely out of harmony, sticking out like a tuba in a string quartet. 

So how do you get these subtle colors? Just as I did with the reddish variations, I mixed a violet (probably made from ultramarine, ivory black, cad red, alizarin and white) into the apricot pile, a tiny amount at a time. I kept checking the value and chroma and fine tuned it until I had what I wanted. Mixing violet into a puddle of peachy color of course gave me a muddy gray, but that’s just what I needed. 

The distant hills are painted in the color of the atmosphere. (They don’t have violet gray grass growing on them)

The distant hills are more or less a darker version of the violet, with a slight increase in the chroma. I’m playing up the atmosphere by completely ignoring the local color here.  The rule is, the more atmospheric effect you have, the less relevant the local color becomes. 

Things like hills way in the distance become just variations of the atmosphere because essentially, what we are seeing is the veil created by the particulate matter in the air between us and the hills, lit by the sun and/or the ambient light of the sky. We’re essentially painting the color of the veil, not the hills behind it. 

So the atmospheric perspective used effectively will create the illusion of depth.  This is very useful in a pure landscape painting where there are no man-made objects to give us linear perspective. But often if you look, you can find elements in a landscape which you can exploit to bring in some linear perspective. 

In my painting, I have the road, which is an obvious thing since it’s man-made and we understand it as parallel lines going towards a vanishing point. I also used  things like edges of fields, how telephone poles and trees diminish in size systematically. As this was an invented landscape, things like the edges of fields are made up elements specifically to show linear perspective. The view makes perfect sense without them. But including them help to create a sense of vast distances. 

Some obvious and not-so-obvious devices to show linear perspective in a landscape.

Perhaps the least obvious, but just as important, are somewhat random-looking strokes on the ground plane that conform to the linear perspective by pointing to a vanishing point.  Especially when you have a foreground that doesn’t have much in it, it can be difficult to make it look like it’s level ground. (Or inclined, if that’s what you’re trying to depict)  In some cases, the up and down strokes used to describe grass in the foreground end up making the entire foreground vertical, like a face of a cliff. Strokes that suggest a vanishing point will not only help the ground lie flat, but it will contribute to the sense of depth.

Losing edges between tree masses.

We’ve been talking about some of the things that go into creating a more complex, believable visual environment. But not all the tools are about adding complexity. Some are about  editing out the unnecessary elements.  Simplifying the design strengthens the impact, and one of the most useful tools to move in that direction, is to combine shapes by losing edges between them.

In my painting, many of the dark tree masses connect, creating fewer shapes rather than a whole bunch of little tree shapes. Our eye doesn’t have a problem perceiving the trees as we intend them to be, even if the combined mass look more like blobs and strips. The context informs the viewer what these abstract shapes are, so we don’t need to give them unnecessary information by painting each individual tree, branch and leaf. 

The shapes being connected don’t necessarily need to be same types of objects, like tree and another tree; you can connect tree and grass, grass and barn, shadow on the side of the barn to the shadow cast on the ground… any two shapes with similar value can be connected.

Sometimes, the shapes need to be separated, even if they’re similar in value. It all depends on whether losing the edge there strengthens or confuses the image. You want your statement to be clear, but if connecting certain shapes creates a silhouette of a poodle (or whatever) that completely misleads the viewer, then may be you want to avoid that. 

OK, that’s about all I wanted to say about this painting. If you are a beginner and found this information overwhelming, let me tell you that I’ve been there, I know. And so has every great painter. They’ve all had to learn the basics, one canvas at a time. It just takes lots of practice. But remember, mindlessly going through the motions doesn’t count towards your canvas mileage. You have to be aware of what it is you’re trying to achieve in each painting. If you are, you’re more likely to spot mistakes, or elements that don’t contribute to your aim. And if you can spot them, you can fix them. 

Happy painting~

Friday, February 19, 2016

Painting Snow

My family and I spend several days up in Lake Tahoe recently. The family went skiing at Heavenly, and I went painting in the snow!

I don't have much experience painting in the snow, to tell you the truth. When I find myself in snow country, you're more likely to find me inside with a hot cup of coffee than freezing my butt off painting plein air. No, I'm not one of those intrepid plein air painters. 

But this time, we had spring conditions - highs in the fifties, and all around the vacation house were beautiful views so I didn't even have to drive out to go painting. Just walk out the back door, plop down my easel, and get to work!

So here are some thoughts about painting snow. Aside from dressing warmly, that is.

Snow is very white (duh) and reflective. So the shadows cast on the snow sometimes look very blue due to the blue sky reflecting off its surface. You can really push this blue as a strategy to include more saturated color– this is useful if the rest of the landscape doesn't have much color punch because all the trees are leafless and drab looking. (That wasn't the case in Tahoe, since the mountains have an abundance of evergreens) 

But if you are making your shadows blue, you have to remember that they're caused by the blue sky, which means you probably have a clear, sunny day. The blue sky is going to make other shadows a little cooler too (if not bluer). And even if you have blue sky conditions, the cast shadows which are not open to the sky (such as deeper in the woods, or underneath a log or a bush where the blue isn't reaching) won't be blue. They're just going to be darker, but not necessarily bluer.

Can you make these not-affected-by-the-blue-sky shadows bluer anyway? Just for color's sake? Yes, as long as it doesn't look weird or wrong. One way to ensure that it works is to give the whole painting a slightly blue bias, and paint a near-monochromatic painting, and use a few accent colors to break the monotony.

If the shadows are blue, implying that you have a clear, sunny day, then you also may want to allow the warm sunlight to affect the lit side of the white snow as well. Warm it up with a little yellow rather than painting it straight white. 

Again, you have to remember that if the light is affecting the snow, the same light is going to affect everything else that's lit too, so make sure the lit side of the trees and bushes have a little more yellow in them as well. 

I found a little creek in the back of the house, and noticed how dark the water looked. It was just waiting to be composed into a sort of abstract design. With a little additional elements (bushes, trees) to provide context, I didn't need much else to create an environment. 

The blue shadow at the bottom of the picture was added to provide a little bit of color in an otherwise white and dark brown painting. Can you see that the lit part of the snow is warmed up with a tiny bit of yellow?

This is the house where we were staying. A long driveway leads up to the garage, which isn't particularly interesting but I thought it might make a good memento of our trip. 

With this sketch, I didn't change anything. It's very literal. I placed the trees as I saw them, and the snow's edge on the either side of the driveway too, is just as I saw it. Ordinarily I would try to design it a little better, but this time I just wanted to see if I could paint it literally.  Why? Sometimes I like to do things like that to reassure myself that when I do make changes, I'm doing so on purpose, and not because I can't draw exactly as I see it. It gives me a dose of confidence to know that I can draw literally, even if doing so results in a less than great sketch.  Half the paintings I do are just studies, and not meant to be shown or sold. (Even though I'm showing them here!) 

Aside from these four oil sketches, I also did a bunch of little tiny sketches in gouache. 

I really don't know how to paint in gouache. I see some of my friends do it beautifully, and I always wanted to learn how to do it, but I never took the time. I thought it was time I got started.

I didn't have high expectations - I just wanted to play around with it and get to know the medium. I knew the value changes from wet to dry was going to be my biggest challenge, so I focused on practicing value control.

None of these are particularly good, but they're fun little sketches and I learned a lot. I think if I do a couple thousand more, I might actually get to a point where I can make good use of the medium and may be get the paint to do what I want, rather than fighting it from start to finish.  

I experimented with the logistics of painting these en plein air - tried sitting in a folding chair, using an easel... I ended up using a watercolor block with my Open Box M pochade and a metal folding watercolor palette, but I don't think it was very efficient. If anyone knows a website or blog post somewhere that explains a good set up for watercolor / gouache en plein air, please let me know. Otherwise, I need to grow a third arm to hold everything.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Little Bit About Abstraction

I think I've mentioned before that my abstracted figures usually begin as fairly straightforward renderings. I pay attention to design, drawing, color relationships and value structure... all the basic things, but I'm not thinking too much about how it'll look abstracted.

Then slowly I start to look for ways to take out information, usually by finding opportunities to lose edges between adjacent shapes.

The two images are two stages of a same painting. On the first one, I've just started to lose edges after being satisfied with a straightforward description. You can see where I lost the edge between the sheet and her thigh, and again at her calf. Also the shadow areas on her lower leg is beginning to get a little nebulous.

Her left upper arm appears to have a section missing, where I just extended the dark background into the flesh.

The second image is the finished picture, much further into the abstraction process. There's almost no separation between the sheet and the leg. You can clearly see that my intend was not to separate flesh from fabric, but light from shadow. Since the flesh and the fabric were both in light, I grouped them together as one.

I went further and blurred the whole lower leg area, dragging the light value over the shadow. I just needed to indicated that the legs were there. I didn't need any other detail to tell my story.

Melting light into light and shadow into shadow happens elsewhere, too. In fact I try to do it where ever I can. But if I did it too much, all of a sudden I don't have anything recognizable. I don't want to end up with a completely non-representational abstract painting–nothing wrong with that, if that's your aim, but it's not mine–so when I start to lose too much, I redefine what I lost.

It's a lot of back and forth, really. And as I'm losing losing edges here and there, I'm also trying to decide where to have my sharp edges.

I try to use them very sparingly. Like exclamation points in a paragraph. If you use too many of them, nothing stands out as important. 

So the process is a pursuit of balance... or a purposeful imbalance between sharp edges and lost ones. Like tension and release. 

It's like jazz, man...

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Seated Nude

Untitled, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

HAPPY NEW YEAR! It's not too late, is it? I'm just coming out of the Holiday stupor and trying to get my gears going. My gears are still very sluggish, but I'm resolved to keep doing something with brush and paint, until I know better which direction I need go.

I've been working on my series of small black and white figure studies. Almost all of the studies in this series were done using short (5 - 10 min) gesture drawings as reference, but with this particular one, the original was a longer pose drawing.

I say longer pose, but it's still no more than 25 minutes. I rarely do drawings from life which are longer than that. Still, as you can see, this one is more a rendering than a linear study, with some attention paid to value structure and all.

Charcoal is a very forgiving and immediate medium, ideal for exploring ideas like this. I can change my mind about which areas to go dark or light, which edges to lose or to define. Obliterate and redraw almost endlessly. At some point erasing becomes a struggle but good paper can take a lot of abuse. 

In the drawing, as is my habit, I made the bottom half of the figure too big. I always do this if I'm not mindful, and sometimes even if I am mindful. It's a good thing I'm not getting graded on this stuff.

 The monochromatic oil study. This was done at a later point without the model, using the drawing above as my only reference. Needless to say, the amount of information I included in the drawing makes a big difference in what I can do here.

I would rather not have to make up important gestural information, so I only tackle the oil study if I thought there was enough information in the reference drawing. This is true whether the drawing is rendered, like the one I'm showing here, or if the drawing is just a short pose linear drawing.

But I do end up making small stuff up all the time. I usually don't deviate from the overall gesture too much, but I might bend a limb a little more gracefully, or nudge a contour one way or another to get a nicer flow.

The figure in oil study ended up looking a little chunky, like those in some of the early Modernists' works. I like that kind of stylized expression, but I don't feel that's me. I'm looking for something more fluid, I think.

The chunky solidity is the result of 1) not paying attention to how the gesture flows throughout the composition, and 2) overemphasizing the form description.

I made a note of these things before I went in with more paint.

Painting right on top of the earlier b/w study. I decided to use warm colors. May be the drafty garage in which I'm working had me wishing for warmth? I dunno.

As I worked on the figure, I tried to give the gesture a more natural, graceful flow. 

The edge of the seat conforms and emphasizes this "flow" idea as they plunge into the lines of the lower legs. If you look at the original drawing, you'll notice the edge of the sofa (?) doesn't do this, so this is a design decision on my part. Good design trumps literal depiction, every time. Unless of course everything is painted realistically, in which case bending the edge of a piece of furniture makes it look like a mistake. 

I tried to keep the lit parts of the flesh very light. By using a full range of values, I can get more contrast where I need it, and the greater value range also means more wiggle room when I'm trying to modulate subtle value transitions. It's much easier to hit the middle point between values A and B, if they're farther apart.

When I'm working tonally with a limited palette, I find that pushing the value range really helps to compensate for the lack of color impact.

The dark areas are fairly thin. It's layered ( I painted on top of the b/w study) but each layer is thin and more or less transparent, as opposed to the lighter areas which are opaque and applied a little thicker. The thin, transparent treatment recede, further emphasizing the lit focal areas.

I'm starting to feel more confident about losing edges without a logical reason (like the edge between  two shapes with similar values) It's just a matter of trying it out everywhere, over and over, until something sticks. It's not a repeatable technique and certainly risky, but the rewards are worth it.

I'm starting to feel OK not being in control.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

How The Ballerina Evolved

Late Rehearsal, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

It has been a very busy couple of months, what with multiple shows and workshops, but finally I have some time to sit down and reflect on things. I thought it might be a good time to do another blog post (sorry for the infrequency!) as I am having a hell of a time getting motivated to lift a brush. I think I just got a little burnt out from too much packed into the last couple of months. This usually happens when I don't pace myself.

But anyway, let's move on~  I wanted to talk about the painting I did for the Waterhouse Gallery's anniversary show, which opened a couple of weeks ago. 

I was cleaning my studio (read: procrastinating) and found the original drawing which I used for reference. I also had taken a snapshot of the B/W study I did,  so I thought I'd post them together to show how it evolved. 

The drawing is from a short pose session with a model. The pose is a 5 minute pose. I think I like this length the best; long enough for me to get the gesture and the shadow pattern information, but not long enough to over do it. It forces me to really think about what is essential, and prioritize what information needs to be recorded. There's no time for details or rendering.

The shadow information in the drawing, you'll notice, is just an indication of pattern. There's no value information other than the fact that I filled it in. I didn't modulate the values, neither in the shadows nor in the light. 

Of course that's not to say that I didn't see any value variations on the model. It's just that I didn't put them in. Partially because 5 minutes isn't very long (the filling-in takes like 10 seconds, usually at the end.  The rest of the time is spent on the linear stuff)  and also because I don't need that information for my purposes. 

I do need to record, however, what type of edge borders a shadow shape; a form shadow edge, which is indicated by softer lines drawn with the pencil lead flat against the paper and moving side ways, and the cast shadow edge, which are drawn by moving the pencil lengthwise so that I may get a sharper edge. On the lit area of the hip, the top of that shape is a cast shadow edge (arm casting shadow onto torso) and the bottom part is a form shadow edge (the form turns away from the light source gradually, so that edge is softer)

Sometimes I get sloppy when time is running out and in my haste I don't differentiate the two shadow edges. Example of that is the sliver of light you see on her calf. The top edge of the lit area should be sharper to indicate that it's a cast shadow edge. 

Not a big deal in this particular drawing, since it's not so difficult to decipher which are form shadow edges and which are cast shadow edges even if I didn't indicate them differently, because the lighting is fairly simple. But sometimes I do want that information recorded because the shapes may be confusing.

And this is the B/W oil study I did from the drawing. I changed the front leg a little bit to add more movement. 

Notice that in this study, there is quite a bit of value modulation both in the lights and the shadows. As I didn't have that information in the original drawing, this stuff is made up, but not without logic. Essentially I'm imagining where the light source is, and making a plane darker or lighter depending on how it is angled. If a plane faces the light source more, it becomes lighter.

On the shadow side, no plane faces the light source, obviously, but there is still value modulation. The value of the planes depend on how much bounced or ambient light it is receiving. But I don't adhere to that logic strictly - I like to play around and bring in some randomness or intentionally go against logic here.  The planes in the shadow side are fairly forgiving because in an interior, conceivably, you can control the lighting so many situations are within believable parameters. 

Ultimately, design has to drive decisions on value structure, not literal logic of where the secondary lights are coming from. If it looks good and doesn't look unreasonable, that's better than a correct note that nevertheless looks out of place. 

And this is what I ended up with. I painted on top of the B/W study, as is my M.O. for this series of figure studies. The most obvious change, besides the fact that it's in color, is the gesture of the arms.

I originally painted them more or less as I had done in the B/W version, but I thought it looked too much like a posed figure model in a classroom situation. I tried several arm positions until I noticed she looked like she may be dancing or otherwise being very careful about stepping - there was some purpose in the gesture.

I liked the pose, so I went with it. Added the leotard, which I love for it's dark value that allowed me to lose edges into the dark background. (And it fits the narrative)

The background is simple, but it took much experimenting to arrive at this solution. I basically decided on values of certain areas based on whether I could get away with not showing the figure's edge or not. Some parts had to be visible to give the viewer gesture or anatomical information, or may be because the line there was simply too beautiful to obscure. Other parts didn't contribute to the overall gestural rhythm, and losing those edges didn't compromise the believability of the gesture or anatomy, so I could lose them by melting the shapes together.

To be sure, there's no rule that guides me in deciding which edges must be shown and which can go - I typically lose every edge at one point or another. It's just trial and error. In this way, the figure and the background become more and more integrated, and I often stumble onto an unexpectedly cool stroke here and there. I try to keep them when I can, as long as they don't disrupt the unity of the painting as a whole.

The blue I used in this painting is mostly Paynes Grey. I've been using that a lot lately.

That's about it. I hope you found the process and the reasons behind my decision-making interesting!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Cityscape Strategies

Racing Down Market Street, 18 x 36 inches, oil on linen 

All of October my friend Lori Putnam had many of her friends to be guest bloggers on her blog, and there are some really, really good articles that you'll find most interesting, insightful and instructional. Be sure to take a look at them when you get a chance. I picked up some great tips and ideas myself~

So this is my contribution to Lori's blog - I thought I'd post it on Studio Notes as well for your reading pleasure. 

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One of the reasons why cityscapes gives us so much trouble is that there’s just way too much information to deal with. If you started painting every window on every building, every tire on every car, it would take forever. I mean not only do you have to draw every little thing, you have to draw them in perspective, to begin with. If your drawing is off, it shows. 

Nope, cityscapes aren’t as forgiving as painting trees and boulders.  So at least for me, a lot of what makes cityscapes doable has to do with strategies in simplification. How to edit down the amount of stuff that gets described, how to suggest rather than describe, how to say more with less. How not to draw everything. The following are my strategies. Some are pretty basic, but I thought it might be interesting to see how they were applied in a specific painting, the picture you see at the top of this post. 

Use a limited palette. My basic color structure is near monochromatic. Except for the red of the brake lights and a little bit of the green foliage, I kept it very gray and tonal. I just had Ivory Black, Titanium White, Yellow Ochre, Transparent Oxide Red, and Asphaltum on my palette (again, except for the accent colors). Asphaltum is just a brown color made from black and red. I don’t really need it, but it’s convenient since it’s a versatile warm dark color that’s a little lighter than straight black. By using it as the darkest value to structure the painting, I can reserve the even darker straight black for accents and punctuation. It's also less intense than T.O.R., another reddish brown color that I love, but can wreak havoc on your colors if you rely on it too much.

I ignored all local colors, (again, except for the accent colors) but did make the lit areas a little warmer by adding Yellow Ochre. A little bit of temperature shift between light and shadow goes a long way when there’s hardly any color in the basic set up. 
And, a little bit of bright accent colors also go a long way toward making the painting not look monotonous even though most of the surface is just grays.

Here’s another example of this strategy in action: 

View from the Top, 7 x 14 inches, oil on linen

Backlighting. Because the sunlight has to travel through all that particulate matter in the atmosphere, the atmospheric effect is amplified. You can’t see much detail, so pretty much everything is reduced down to silhouettes. I didn’t even have to paint windows on the tall buildings! And my trees and pedestrians are mostly reduced to silhouettes, too. You really don’t need different colored pieces of clothing on every figure. 

As I said, backlighting amplifies the atmospheric effect which simplifies the visual elements. Other conditions can also do the same, like haze, fog, rain, and nocturne views. The basic idea is that silhouettes can be described with just one value, where as if the figure (or the building or the car) were directly lit, it requires at least two values–light and shadow–to describe it. One value is obviously much simpler than two. The trick is to make sure that the silhouette has a recognizable, if not strong and interesting, shape, either by itself or by context. 

Crosswalk Shadows, 12 x 19 inches, oil on linen

Spot focus. Actually, the buildings having no detail is not just because of the atmosphere in backlighting, it’s also because I’m being selective as to where I show detail and where I don’t. If you consider that only about 25% of our field of vision is in focus at any given moment, you can see how this spot-focus thing mimics how the eye sees (in terms of amount of detail). 

If you were painting from observation, try this: focus your sight on one spot. (that would be your focal point) and paint the periphery while you’re still focused on your focal point. If you can’t see detail, you can’t paint it, can you. 

Another good trick (not really a trick…technique?) is to squint. Yes we’re all nagged to squint to see values. But here I’m suggesting to squint specifically to limit your ability to see detail. Paint only what you can see while squinting. Then open your eyes to paint your focal area. 

If you’ve struggled to paint “loosely”, you may find it helpful to shift your thinking from trying to use “loose brush work” to painting with limited vision, as described above. 

To and Fro, 14.5 x 24 inches, oil on linen

Lower key. This one is pretty obvious. I made my shadows really dark, so I can lose a lot of information in the darkness. This works really well when working tonally, but not so well if you have a lot of color a la the Impressionists. Color-filled shadows still can be simplified so that it has very little detail, but if you’re going to push the color of secondary light in the shadows, (reflected and ambient) you are saying that the shadows are illuminated. If they’re illuminated, you can see stuff in the shadows, right? Dark shadows color-ful shadows can't really coexist too well.

Sure, you’ve seen paintings that has both bright colors and dark shadows in them. Next time you see one, you might ask yourself these questions; is the artist pushing the intensity of the color of the light (primary and/or secondary), or is he pushing local colors? and is the artist deviating from a naturalistic depiction by pushing these colors and having dark shadows? 

There’s nothing wrong with deviating from naturalistic depiction, as long as that’s your intention and you like the result. That’s expression. However, if your aim is to describe a more or less believable environment, it’s a good idea not to mix a tonal approach and an Impressionist one. 

Under the El, 12 x 18 inches, oil on linen

Connecting shapes. If you connect two shapes by losing the edge between them, you now have one shape. One shape is simpler than two shapes. So whenever there’s an opportunity–two adjacent shapes have similar values–lose the edge in between and connect them. 

This is pretty easy to do with dark shapes because as I mentioned above, we are already losing information, (including edge information) in the dark shadows. You can also lose edges between two light shapes, like between the brightly lit street surface and its reflection on the side of the bus. Or between one building and another. 

I do a considerable amount of experimentation in this area. I try to lose edges everywhere, and if I lose so much information that I can’t tell what I’m looking at, I can always redefine it. But I won’t know if losing an edge messes up my painting until I try it. 

It may be scary to lose an edge - after all, you may have an uncommonly beautiful passage there and are reluctant to lose it. But as they say, no risk, no glory. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned over the years is that you have to be willing to lose it in order to move forward and grow. You’ll discover that indeed, sometimes you will ruin a passage, or the painting even. But in most cases, you’ll be able to redo an edge, or a passage, or the whole painting, and if you do it enough times you’ll start to trust your ability to redo it. At that point, losing a passage becomes not so scary, and when you've lost that fear,  you will start to see a big difference in your strokes. That difference? Confidence. If there’s one  thing that I see in all great painters’ works, it is that confidence in their strokes. (OK, so you can’t even see brushstrokes in some of those realist painters’ works. But you know what I mean.)

Dusk, Firenze, 20 x 16 inches, oil on linen

It looks like I’ve gone off on a tangent so I’d better wrap this up. Yes, cityscapes can be intimidating, but with some simplifying strategies, they’re doable. It takes a little practice, and a little patience, but I hope you now feel like you have the tools to tackle a complex city scene!

Thanks for reading! And thanks Lori for inviting me to contribute to your blog!

Oh by the way, the painting at the top, Racing Down Market Street, is on display at the Brattleboro Museum in Vermont as part of an exhibition curated by my friend Charlie Hunter.
Boxcars runs through March, 2016. Check it out if you're in the area!