Sunday, July 12, 2015


I received a request to talk about brushstrokes (Tom B., this one's for you!), so here goes~

When I'm teaching, one of the most common problems I see is that of muddy colors. This usually happens in conjunction with overworked surfaces with strokes which have little expression, intention, or meaning. 

Most of the time, the student assumes poor color mixing is to blame, ("my colors don't look right!") and this may indeed be true, but often the problem may not be in how he made his color mixing decisions, but in how he applied the color onto his canvas. 

When we're painting wet into wet, we can't avoid picking up some of the colors already on the canvas surface as we make contact with the brush loaded with new color. If we keep dabbing or stroking at the surface with this same loaded brush, each subsequent contact will have less of the intended new color that we mixed on the palette, but more of the combined mixture of the new color and whatever the brush picked up in the previous dabs. 

Obviously, this "combined color" isn't what we intended.  (We are not talking about intentionally mixing colors on canvas here - that's a totally different technique) And it's easy to see how this happens. Surprisingly, many students just keep on dabbing, licking (mindlessly stroking the same spot over and over on auto-pilot) and "smoothing" out the area in an attempt to fix or hide the mistake. (Been there, done that. Thousands of times.)

Having identified the problem, this solution doesn't make any sense, does it? 

So what do we do? We have to figure out how to avoid this "combined color", and only put down the intended new color. (the color you actually mixed on the palette)  

The answer seems pretty logical; one, avoid picking up the existing color on the canvas surface, and two, if you do pick up some of the existing color, don't keep putting it back into the painting. 

The second part is extraordinarily simple. Whenever you pick up unwanted color, clean your brush!  Yes, that might mean cleaning the brush after every stroke and reloading with fresh paint. But if you use both sides of a flat or a filbert brush, you should at least be able to get two strokes before wiping it clean. 

It's easy to forget to clean the brush when your new color is so closely related to the existing color, because they're so harmonious, the mixture doesn't look muddy, or even wrong. But if the two colors are further apart in hue and/or value, it gets mucky pretty quickly. So you see, "Clean your brush often" and "Put it down, and leave it alone" go hand in hand.

Now let's talk about avoiding picking up of the existing color on the canvas. If you're painting wet into wet, it's pretty much impossible not to pick up at least a tiny bit of it every time you touch canvas. So it comes down to trying to pick up as little as possible. 

First, take a look at how your brush is angled when you apply your strokes. Is it nearly perpendicular, like this? 

If so, notice only the tip of the brush makes contact at first, and if you want to transfer the paint on the rest of the brush onto the canvas, you have no choice but to push the brush against the canvas, and into the wet paint, like this; 

You can't avoid picking up a lot of the paint from the surface because you're pretty much jamming your brush into it. And even if you do clean your brush after every stroke, whatever expression you get from such a stroke is going to reflect that heavy-handedness. Does that make sense? 

What if you were to hold your brush at a much more acute angle, almost flat against the canvas, like this;

This will allow your brush to make contact with the canvas with more surface area, more paint, and without jamming the tip into the wet surface. That means minimal disturbance of the existing surface. You'll still pick up some paint from the canvas, but because you're not digging into it, you'll be putting down the new color on top of the old color, not into it. With a loaded brush, and if the wet paint on the canvas is thin enough you can get quite a few more strokes in without getting any "combined color" to muck it up.

The other great benefit of holding the brush at an acute angle is the range of expression that you can get. By moving the brush side to side and skimming over the wet surface, you can get some really nice irregular-looking calligraphic expression.

I do have to stress that this is just one aspect of using the brush to apply paint. There are times you do want to hold your brush perpendicularly to the canvas. There are times you do want to jam the brush into wet paint and mush it around. There are times you do want that "combined color", especially if you're looking for a transition between two colors, or a beautiful broken color note.  There's no one right way,  except in the specific context of what you want to achieve with any given note.

So here's a list for ya, (because we all like lists :-D)

  • Load your brush with paint. (Don't skimp!)
  • Hold your brush nearly flat against the canvas.
  • Don't hold your brush perpendicularly to the canvas. 
  • Don't push the canvas with your brush. Don't stab it. Don't jam it.
  • Use only enough pressure to take paint off the brush without disturbing the wet surface.
  • If you pick up existing color, clean your brush immediately and reload.
  • That may mean you only have one or two strokes per load, especially if the surface already has a lot of paint, or if you don't have enough paint on the brush.
  • A very, very light touch!
  • You can move your brush every which way to get different kinds of strokes. Experiment, practice and be familiar with what it can do.
  • No licking. (mindlessly going over the same stroke over and over while you think about what to do next. If painting were a verbal language, this is the same as repeating " um..."
  • Put it down, leave it alone.
  • If you do notice that the color you put down is wrong, scrape it off. Don't try to hide the error by mushing it into the surface.
  • Once again with the verbal language analogy; Each stroke is a word. Enunciate each word. Say it like you mean it. Make sure you have the right word before you say it.
  • Strokes show intention, so have one. If you're unsure, that shows, too. Perhaps more than you wish to reveal.

Sorry to bore you with the repeated plug, but I can show you exactly how this is done in the context of your own painting...and other ways of using the brush and the knife, too, if you come to my workshop in Michigan in September! Please follow this link for more info: Michigan workshop.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Suggesting Light and Shadow on Foliage

Often, when we are sketching en plein air, we have very limited amount of time to put down on canvas what we want to take home. There's never enough time to faithfully copy all the intricate shapes that we see before us. (Who wants to copy anyway?)

So we have to simplify, and still manage to capture the character of whatever it is we're painting. In school, the instructors talk about visualizing a complex object as made up of fewer, simple geometric solids. For many a student, this is a puzzling concept. Sometimes the trees become oversimplified and end up looking like lollipops - you know what I'm talking about.

I think that in order to do this well, first you have to have an understanding of how light, shadow and form are related. You should be fairly adept at painting the simple solids like spheres and cones out of your head. Otherwise, translating a complex tree form into a simpler one without looking simplistic, is difficult, if not impossible. 

Once you have command of painting spheres out of your head, practice painting full, densely foliaged trees. The denser the foliage, the the easier it is to see form. 

Imagine the entire tree as one form, and noting where the light source is, indicate the lit side and the shadow side. It's like painting a sphere in the color of the foliage. Make sure the color of the light side is warmer and lighter than the shadow side. 

If you are mixing your lit side color by lightening the value of the shadow side, be careful; if you just mix white into your shadow color, it'll get lighter, yes, but it won't be warmer, so you won't have a "sunlit" tree; the light will be too cool, and will appear "chalky". Make sure to reach for your yellows first, then if you need to lighten up further, add tiny amounts of white at a time.

Now comes the good part. Just as you imagined the entire tree as a simple solid, you want to imagine smaller masses within the tree in the same way. imagine a clump of foliage as a lopsided sphere (chances are, foliage masses won't look like perfect spheres) and indicate light and shadow on it.

Repeat the process on another clump of foliage, and keep going until you have sufficiently broken up the tree into a more natural, complex looking mass than when you started. 

You don't want to neglect the overall silhouette of the tree, for that has a lot of impact on the character of the tree, but that's another day's post.

With practice, and using what you actually see as reference only, you'll be able to suggest light and shadow on tree masses pretty convincingly pretty quickly, freeing up your time for other important things like... the rest of the painting. 

In the examples I'm showing on this post, I hope you can see the lumps of foliage as I picked them out and lit them. I hope you can see that it's just a matter of identifying the lumps, and simply identifying the lit side and shadow side of each lump. 

Just where are these lumps on a tree? You can use the tree in front of you as reference, you can use your imagination, or you can use a combination of both. 

If you get adept at using your imagination to identify these lumps, you'll find that you can paint trees out of your head - which is obviously a very handy skill. 

I have to warn you, that in order to go beyond the generic, you really have to study and be familiar with specific species and their characteristics. The deeper your knowledge about the subject, the better you'll represent it.

The same exact technique can be used to paint clouds.  Not the thin, wispy ones with no discernible shadows, but the dense thunderheads with clear light and shadow patterns.

So as you can see, this technique not only helps to quickly indicate light and shadow patterns on trees and clouds, but it really is a fundamental skill in painting stuff out of your head. (Or if you want to sound more impressive, paint from memory

But in order to design clouds and trees to suit your composition (because again, copying will only get you so far) , you have to be able to re-shape them and still light them convincingly. Knowing how to reduce complex forms into simpler solids will make this possible.

Homework for ya; Try painting a few eggs out of your head.  Then try painting them green. Then try making the shape of the egg a little irregular, with broken and soft edges. Try putting that in a landscape. Let me know how it goes~

If you want me to show you, why not come join me in Michigan for a three day workshop in September? We'll be painting on the beautiful grounds of the Franciscan Life Process Center in Lowell, MI. I'll be talking about this, and everything else I can think of about the art of landscape painting!

You can sign up by going to the Center's workshop page.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Back on the Road

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

I guess the summer is here–still mid-June, but we have already had a couple of 100F+ days. I hope it's not going to be like this all summer long! 

Not so much nowadays, but when I was younger, summers meant road trips. You know, on the open road, radio blasting, diner food,  destination unknown, (or at least lodging uncertain), one hundred bottles of beer on the wall… ah, the good old days….

The open road is one of my recurring motifs, and today I thought I'd share the process of one such recent painting. This is a larger studio painting, 18 x 36.   I started by doing some thumbnails in my sketchbook. Nothing too tight or detailed, just a general idea. 

I knew that I was going to have a pinkish sky, a large central eucalyptus tree, the open road taking us into the picture and into the distance. I didn't define the smaller tree groupings because I knew I would be moving those around later. I thought this was an area where I could have a lot of flexibility.  Still, I had a fairly good idea of what it was going to look like.

I started by toning the canvas. I used a mixture of ultramarine and Transparent Oxide Red, with Gamsol. Just brushed it on like watercolor, and wiped most of it off. I tone the canvas to kill the white (easier to judge color/ value on a non-extreme context) 

I then used the same mixture to draw out my design. Keeping things fairly loose from the get go. I try to take advantage of the fact that drawing trees and clouds are more forgiving than drawing buildings or figures. I avoid tightly defining shapes at this point.  

Here I've indicated the telephone poles. I've also used a lighter wash to delineate the distant hills. If I can get a good sense of where I'm going with the design at this early stage, I feel fairly confident about pulling this off. Sometimes it's a struggle and I end up abandoning it at this stage. You can usually spot major design issues before getting too far along. The problems are almost never small detail-ly things. They're usually big issues, like balancing visual weights, symmetry vs. asymmetry, focal point(s) or lack there of, and whether I have a single, clear statement or not. If I can't make that statement in three values, it's probably too complex.

This is what it looks like close up. As you can see, the mixture of T.O.R and Ultramarine and Gamsol makes a nice neutral, clean dark wash. It's transparent, and can be pushed towards warm or cool by adjusting the amount of one or the other color. 

I usually aim for a slightly warmer tone here. Also, I try to keep the paint very thin. Dark, but not thicker than absolutely necessary to achieve that dark value. As this is a wash using solvent, it'll dry fairly quickly and much lighter, too. Which is not a problem as I will cover it all up anyway. It's more important to me to keep it thin so that subsequent layer stays clean as I apply strokes on top of this dark brown color.

Here I have started painting with colors. From here on, 99% of the application is opaque. I'll maintain transparency only where it's very dark, like the interior of the tree peeking through the green top layers. Other than that, I like to paint everything opaque. The rule is, if you can see color or detail, it's because it's illuminated (if not directly by the sun, then by reflected or ambient light) and if it's illuminated, it's opaque. A handy rule, though not carved in stone because opacity and value can be manipulated independent of each other. It's just one of those rules of thumb that works well most of the time.

Except for the finished image, all the progress shots are taken with my iPhone so I apologize for the lower quality. But I think the points come across OK. 

At this point, I'm trying to figure out the relationship between the foreground and background. The greens in the foreground are much higher in chroma. Richer. As we go back in space, I'm dropping the chroma (making it grayer) and moving it toward the blue-violet grey of the distant hills. 

I do this by dividing the distance–from the closest to the farthest–into three or four sections, and systematically reducing the saturation by using less yellows. In actuality, it's not as simplistic as dropping yellows - the subtleties require mixing all three primaries plus white to get a nice muted color, but using less yellow in the distance is a big part of the color mixing process here.

Determining the general color of the sky. I know I want it to be pinkish. But not screaming pink. I want a dusty pink. Red and yellow plus white makes a nice peachy orange color, and I can make it more muted by adding blue to the mix. 

There are many variations of the dusty, rosy color in the sky and some parts are more orange than pink, but a lot of it leans toward red violet.  Violet is one of those colors for which making warm and cool variations are fairly easy. Red violet is warmer, and blue violet is cooler. If I use the same puddle to make these two close variations, I have the foundation for the light and shadow colors of the violet sky. 

I tried to make them closely related, so as to not have too jumpy a contrast in the sky. I want the sky to be active and interesting, but not so much so that it takes away from, or competes with, the foreground elements. 

It's difficult to tell whether the sky color works before the whole thing is filled in.  Often a test patch of color may look good, but turns out to be wrong when it becomes contextual. I think the only ways to deal with this problem is experience, and doing small color studies to test it out. When in doubt, try it!

Now I'm starting to add value variations in the sky, in an attempt to form some volumous cloud masses. Using a cooler, darker color variation of the general dusty pink, I try to imagine which areas fall away from the light source.  

The light is coming in from the right, so the left side of the imagined puff balls gets the shadow colors.  So too, do the bottoms of the puff balls. 

I go back and forth between the light and the shadow to design the sky. This may take a few hours or a few days. I like the organic nature of the process where I'm just pushing and pulling until it starts to make sense. I don't typically do a tight design of clouds or foliage masses beforehand- I like to make them up as I go, allowing myself to change my mind as many times as necessary. 

Getting close to finish. I've covered the canvas, added thicker strokes over almost everything, and refined the relationships between shapes. The tree masses had light and shadow colors on them already, but my lights were too dark so they were hard to see. I clarified the light-shadow pattern by pushing the value range apart; lighter lights. 

I moved the right edge of the road inward. Not that it was wrong before, but it made an odd shape near the bottom of the picture. By bringing in that edge, I think we can step into the picture a little more easily, and not dwell on the shape there.  Yes, it makes the road narrower, but that's OK. This road doesn't have to be a highway. 

The slight overall color change between this shot and the earlier ones, is due to the fact that the earlier ones were taken with my phone, and the last one was done with a decent set up. 

I'm waiting for my frame to arrive now. I think it'll look nice with a heavy, dark frame. Can't wait to see it framed!

If this kind of post interests you, and you'd like a more in-depth, hands-on instruction, you may be interested in an upcoming workshop I'm doing in Lowell, Michigan. It's a 3-day plein air landscape painting workshop (weather permitting–in adverse weather we'll take it inside) and I'll be covering all the important points I talked about on this post, and then some.  Find out more on the Franciscan Life Process Center's website!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Plein Air Magazine

May be you've already seen it on my Facebook page or on Instagram (@terrymiura) or on twitter (this one I have an account but I don't know how to use it really) or on not-too-frequent e-newsletter, or in the actual magazine, but I'm in the current issue of Plein Air Magazine.

I'm super excited to be featured (5 pages!) in this magazine not only because I get to be among all the greats working today (and some from the past) whose work I've long admired, but also because the printing is just so damn good!

Because I worked as a freelance illustrator for magazines and book publishers for nearly two decades, I know how difficult it is to get a good reproduction. Usually, they don't even come close. As an illustrator for print media, I learned the hard way that the final "product" is not the painting, but what appears on the printed page. As such, I had to create images with the printed image in mind, punching value contrast and edge contrast (making sharp edges really mean something) I had to do that because  the subtleties just didn't reproduce on a typical magazine page.

Nowadays, I don't even think about the printed page so my paintings are full of close values and subtle grays. Frankly, I didn't have high expectations about how it would reproduce. I chose images which had good, clear value organizations, but still, I was prepared to be disappointed.

But when I received my copies of the magazines and opened it to my page, I was astounded by the accuracy of the printed images. All I could do was mutter "!" When I realized that I hadn't even given them the CMYK files, I was doubly impressed.  (RGB files are for computer screens, CMYK is for offset printing)

My hat's off to Plein Air Magazine for making me look good!! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

And the article? I was never worried about it. I knew I was in good hands with the editor, Steve Doherty. And so far, I've been receiving a lot of really positive feedback.  Thank you Steve!!

If you don't subscribe to Plein Air Magazine, check it out at a bookstore. It's a beautiful magazine with great content. You might want to subscribe to it~

If you've seen the article, let me know what you think!!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Simplifying Cityscapes

A Long Afternoon, 36 x 36 inches, oil on linen

I had a request from a student to talk about how I go about simplifying when painting cityscapes. If you've ever tried painting an urban scene, you know it can be very challenging, what with all the complex man-made elements that must be drawn correctly in perspective.

If you were painting a pure landscape, you can bend a tree and it'll still look convincing. But if you draw a building or any element within it askew, your painting just looks wrong. Man-made objects are much less forgiving than organic things...for the most part.

Anyway, let's talk about some strategies in simplifying this very complex subject matter so that we can tackle it without being overwhelmed.

The very first thing you might try, is to find a view which allows you to not have to deal with perspective drawing too much. Don't get me wrong, I firmly believe that every representational artist should study and be competently versed in perspective drawing. It's a fundamental skill and there's no way around it.

But when you are learning the craft of painting, it might be a good idea to keep things simple so that you can focus on other things such as color, value, edges, etc.

The top painting, A Long Afternoon is set up so that there is very little perspective drawing. You're looking straight at a facade of a building - it's basically an elevation view, and as such, we are not dealing with depth nor vanishing points.

That's not strictly true - the two sides of the green awning converge to a vanishing point, and also we see the underside of the fire escape, which shows a little bit of perspective. But for the most part, the drawing is just a bunch of flat shapes.  In terms of perspective, this is the simplest way to do it. The resulting painting doesn't necessarily have to look simplistic - there are plenty of ways to add complexity to a piece - but it sure makes it less daunting when you only have to deal with flat shapes.

Evening Palms, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

Evening Palms is a one-point perspective set up. It has one vanishing point to which all the parallel lines converge (lines on the street surface, the curb, roof height of the cars, palm trees...). Obviously more complex than a facade in elevation view, but not as complex as a two point perspective view.

Another way to simplify is to limit the palette. This one uses a single-color structure. By using a near-monochromatic structure, I don't have to worry about color harmony, which is a really difficult thing  even if you weren't painting a cityscape. The cityscape compounds the difficulty of color harmony because there are so many elements of seemingly unrelated, and sometimes garish colors. Although theoretically, all the unrelated local colors would be unified by the color of the light, the artist has to consciously pull them closer in order to achieve color harmony. Not easy to do. 

Often, a beginning to intermediate painter has this idea that the more faithfully he reproduces the color he sees, the better his painting will be. This is not true. There I said it. (you can disagree if you want. I'm not going to have a flame war with you :-) 

I believe that the ability to precisely reproduce colors is an essential skill for the representational painter, but that doesn't mean copying colors is going to make a better painting. The skill you want is the ability to control  your colors, to suit your needs. To make a statement. To express an idea. Matching colors isn't the point, but the ability to do so is important because that same ability is necessary to mix the colors to say what you want to say.

Modes of Transportation, 12 x 16, oil on panel

But I digress. Simplify your palette! I sometimes just do black and white  cityscapes. and they can be just as compelling as a full palette painting. If I were having a hard time with a complex subject matter, why not take color out of the equation? Give your self permission to disregard a big chunk of what's confounding your efforts. You can always do another study in full color.

OK, now we come to the part where, I suspect, the student who asked the question was really interested in. How to reduce the amount of information described? Is there a rule? A trick?
I wouldn't go so far as to call it a trick. But rules, yes. There are many "rules" in representational painting that we must be aware of in order to make a painting look believable. Rules of perspective, color harmony, edges, effects of light on form, effects of atmosphere on depth, these are all things that anyone can -generally- agree on.

But when we talk about the rules of editing, we start to move into the areas of individual expression. These rules are closely tied to the artist's style. In a word, they are subjective. So I have my own rules, which may or may not be applicable to your painting. You can learn them to may be make your painting look like mine, but shouldn't you want your painting  to look like yours?

Aria Redux, 36 x 36 inches, oil on linen

Identity. I think that's what it comes down to, but that's a topic we can dig much deeper into on another day's post. I don't mean to hold out on the rules of simplification, so here goes. Please remember these are just rules that I made for myself, and they apply to the paintings I'm showing today, but they don't necessarily work in every situation. Not even on my own paintings.

1. Make sure you (that is, I) have a strong light / shadow pattern. Direct lighting is a must because...

2. You can reduce the picture to just two values; one for the light, and one for the shadows. Just light and dark. Two values are much, much simpler than say, a hundred, don't you think? And more often than not, if you have a good strong light / shadow pattern to begin with, you can describe an environment with just those two values. All shadows touching one another would be connected, and all light shapes touching one another would be connected. In the top painting, A Long Afternoon, you can see this applied in the shadows of the firescape. I'm not differentiating the shadows on the surface of the building from the shadows within the windows. I'm only dealing with light and shadow shapes, not windows and walls. You can see that the edges get completely lost where you might expect to see the outline of a window, and yet, the picture is still readable.

3.  Now that you've reduced it to two values - it's as simple a value structure as you can have - you can add complexity by breaking up the shadow side into a couple of levels of varying values. In Aria Redux, and also in Rhythm and Blues, below, the cars in the shadows are described in just a few values. The distant ones especially are done in just two values. Take a look at the distant cars in Aria - they are defined just by defining the planes facing the sky, which takes on a lighter value. The rest of the planes on individual cars and the road surface are all the same.

In Rhythm and Blues, the sky-facing planes of the distant cars in shadow are the same as the planes of the road surface. I suggested the cars by using a darker value to indicate the non-sky-facing planes. Still two values.

Here and there, I sneak in a third value to give it a sense of complexity, but really, there's not much of that happening, is there.

An important thing here is to keep these value variations within the shadows fairly close, so that they don't become fragmented. And if you're using a lighter variation, like in Aria, the value of these lighter shadows must still be darker than sunlit areas. When you squint at the image, you want the value structure to reduce back to the original two value organization. If your values are not subtle enough, the squint-test will reveal a fragmented structure.

4. The sunlit side too, can have a couple of levels of values to add complexity. I like to keep these close, too, to maintain the big two-value organization.

5. Simple color schemes. I like to keep my colors simple. Having a full range of colors is confusing, and it goes against unifying the various elements into a cohesive whole. This unity,  to me, is faaaarrr more important than having a lot of unrelated splashy colors. Nor do I care about faithfully copying actual local colors.

6. Simple color schemes, in this case, is based on single-color structure. It's almost monochromatic. In fact, I start painting nearly monochromatically - I say nearly because I'm not looking for strictly monochromatic paintings, so I don't mix colors too precisely in the beginning. Once an overall block-in is established, I can start to add complexity by throwing in slight color variations.  Accents, or bling, come toward the end, and these can deviate from the overall color theme - red tail lights, green traffic lights, yellow center line, etc.

Again, they add a sense of complexity without really being all that complex. The underlying structure is still very simple.

Rhythm and Blues, 27 x 18 inches, oil on linen

The greens of the trees in Rhythm and Blues are a slight variation from the overall blue structure. That is to say, it's a blue that's bent slightly toward green, rather than an isolated green that's mixed by itself on the palette. The point is, other than accents, all colors are just slight variations of the initial near-monochromatic structure. Simple, unifying, and organized. That's key.

The trees in Aria are even simpler; they don't have any local color! They're just dark values of the purple theme, but they're so dark that there's hardly any chroma. 

7. Connecting shapes and losing edges in as many places as possible. Remember that with just two values, you could describe a believable environment. That means you don't necessarily need more information to make it believable. So why separate one shape from the next? If you have a good reason, do it. If you don't, consider leaving that edge obscure. Connect buildings shadow to shadow, light to light. Connect trees. Shadow to shadow, light to light. Connect ground plane to vertical planes if both are in light, or if both are in shadow.

8. Soft and sharp edges. Soft edges can say a lot without actually saying things out loud. Use sharp edges sparingly. They're the loud notes. Use them only when you want to punctuate. 

9. don't paint signage lettering, unless they're big enough to do it neatly with a no.2 flat bristle brush. Again, this is just my rule. 

10. Don't paint faces.

11. Just paint planes on cars. Forget the local colors. Add a few headlights and tail/brake lights.

12. If you paint in a lower key, you don't have to paint anything in the shadows! It's all dark!

13. One point perspective is simpler than two point. An elevation view is simpler than one point. But where you do show linear perspective, these have to be accurate. No way around that one.

14. When deciding whether to include a particular element, ask yourself, "does it support my concept?" Obviously, you need to know what your concept is before you get started. 

OK, that's about all I can think of off the top of my head. Simplifying a cityscape really is about connecting shapes and losing edges, and having a strong light/shadow pattern makes it a logical task. If you do it in a simple, single-color structure, you've got a very good foundation. From there, you can add complexity by adding one or two value variations, color variations, and bling.

I want to stress again that these are just my rules for myself, and they help me to make the kind of paintings that I do. You'll have to come up with your own set of rules, but you're welcome to use mine to see if they work for you. I know that in the end, you'll end up with your own voice and not mine, even if you use all of my rules. 

If you give it a try, let me know how it went! I'd love to hear about it :-D

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Pratique des Arts

 I am very happy to be included in the current issue of Pratique des Arts, a French art publication.

This is an issue focusing on the art of portraiture and the figure, and I was asked to be a part of it.
There is a six page feature on me and my work~ How cool is that?

Since I quit doing illustration some eight years ago, I don't get to be in magazines that often, so I got pretty excited. And to have my figurative works featured in a magazine, well that's a first for me. I have had landscapes and cityscapes picked up by magazines a few times, but to have the figure stuff recognized is pretty sweet.

It is not a secret that figures are in general harder to sell, so many galleries don't want to take them on. And from a business perspective, I understand that and don't blame the galleries for not wanting to show my figures - nudes or clothed - but as an artist, this is where I come closest to finding my voice, and feel a certain conviction in the authenticity of my identity in the expression that I'm able to achieve.

So to have this part of my repertoire recognized is really special to me.

The article is based on an interview that I did (in English). The article itself is in French, so I can't read it but my French speaking friend tells me they made me sound smarter than I am, so that's good.

In the interview I did talk about my philosophy and processes, and why I do the things I do. I often think about the whys of my processes, but to articulate it so that my intensions are understood is not an easy thing for someone who prefers to communicate visually, not verbally.

Still, I think it came out nicely. The layout is hip and the printing is pretty good, too. Having been a print illustrator for 17 years, I know how bad magazine printing can be. I was pretty happy with the result in this magazine.

So if you're in a France, check it out~ Let me know what you think!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Black and White Figure Studies

One day last summer, I gave an assignment to my class; do a black and white oil study, using your own short-pose (5 - 20min) drawing as a reference. Although very difficult, I thought it was a great assignment that forced you to really think about many aspects of figure drawing and painting. 

One obvious difficulty was that there's only so much information can be packed in a 5 minute drawing, no matter how good you are. So when you use these as references, you have to extrapolate a lot; anatomy, lighting, form. That's almost everything.  

You may have good gesture information, general placement and proportions, light/shadow pattern mapped out (but not value information - more on that later).

Anyway, I though it was such a good assignment that I said to my class, hey, we should do more of these. Let's all do a hundred! If I heard groans, I blocked them out of my memory. Of course, I myself had to walk the walk, if not to inspire and encourage my students, then just to be fair.

So a couple of weeks ago I finally completed my one hundred black/white studies, almost all of them done from short pose drawings. A handful were done from live models, but as that's not particularly easy either and they're still in the spirit of learning the craft of figure painting, I thought they counted toward my one hundred.

Most are done on 12 x 16 pieces of loose canvas (oil primed linen) and I tacked them onto my wall as I finished them.  Finished isn't exactly accurate, for after about a dozen, I began to see these not as completed black and white paintings per se, but foundations for further exploration. That is to say, I thought I might keep working on top of them later, in color, to arrive at something more complex. So I stopped taking them very far; just enough to serve as underpaintings, of sorts.

The idea excited me, and I wanted to get on it immediately, but I held back. I will do my one hundred b/w first, and when I reach that goal, as a reward, I will allow myself to play with these sketches and develop them further. (OK I confess, I took a couple of them further with color before I finished my hundred)

Hopefully, I'll be able to share the evolution from drawing to finished painting on many of the one hundred sketches - if I can find the original drawings - on this here blog in the coming months, but for today I'll share a handful of which I took snapshots of the B/W's.

This is one of the earliest ones. No.3, in fact. The drawings on this sheet are 5 minute poses, and as you can see, I have the light / shadow pattern on the figures but no value information. That is to say, I'm not modeling forms with value modulation beyond the two values that represent light and shadow. There's no indication of highlights, variations within light, no variation within shadow. The shadow is just a quick flat fill. Some of the form shadow edges become darker core shadows but that's just a function of mapping and not necessarily observed (in these drawings, anyway).

So when the time came to do a value sketch from the drawing, I had to imagine where the light source was, and how it affected the illumination of the figure. In particular, which lit parts were lighter, and which parts were less so? I had to imagine which planes faced the light source, and also how to put the figure in an environment. 

I wasn't about to invent an interior with furniture or anything like that, but the figure needed to be standing on the floor, and I also needed something in the background. The cast shadow on the floor is made up - not too difficult to imagine that it needed to go in the opposite direction of the light source.

This one is no. 2, I think.  I had trouble redrawing the figure on canvas, so I used a grid. Sometimes I need a little help. Again, notice the flat shadow fill. I did the same thing in paint. In the drawing, there's no value variation in the lit area, but in the painting I did the best I can to imagine how the values might be modulated, by trying to visualize how the planes were angled.

A reclining pose. The drawing is a 10 minute pose. With toned paper, there is a little more information in the light side, because I'm using white conte to indicate where the highlights are. The value of the toned paper itself represents light, and white conte an additional value within the lit areas. The sanguine pencil represents the shadows. (And of course the line work) 

With this B/W study, I tried to modulate the values in the shadow areas as well. Mostly a matter separating "regular" shadows from darkest darks, and imagining which shadow planes might receive a greater amount of bounced light (her left thigh near the floor, for example).

More on toned paper. I love doing these. There's not a whole lot of easily recognizable body part shapes in this one, which made it a little tricky.

This shot is squared off for posting on Instagram. The actual painting isn't square, but I lost the original file. I'll shoot it again when it's time for me to work on this painting again. 

Are you on Instagram? You can follow my posts there too~ (terrymiura)

This one has a little bit of value modulation. I don't normally do this on a short pose drawing, but I must have been thinking about the oil sketch that would result from it. 

The painted version (No.75). A little top heavy and her leg seems to be chopped off at the knee. I'll have to fix those things in the later stage.

As I mentioned above, after the first dozen or so, I found myself stopping a lot sooner, because there was no point in "finishing" these paintings. I was going to put color on top of it and keep working later. As soon as I got the general sense of the structure, I would stop. I spent may be 45 minutes to an hour and a half on each. Sometimes, if I were having a hard time getting the gesture down, I may work on it two or three hours, but the result wouldn't look any more finished or rendered than if I had spent 45 minutes.

Here's No. 99. This one's a little sloppy. I lost the foreshortening on the bent arm so she looks like she has a very short arm. These things are sometimes overlooked when I'm drawing or painting the figure, and only become visible when I see photos of them on screen at a tiny size. It's a good idea to always take photos and check for obvious errors before sending a painting off to a gallery!

 So this is one where I've already taken it beyond the B/W. I think I posted this on the blog before, didn't I? There are small changes in the gesture that happened between stage 1 (drawing), stage 2 (B/W), and stage 3 (color). Which doesn't bother me, as I'm not trying to copy the original drawing. I just want to end up with something good.

The background in the B/W is mostly dark, whereas in the color version it's mostly light. I went back and forth several times before deciding on the light background. This flip-flopping is not unusual for me for something like this. And I'm OK with that too, since I've already decided that these 100 B/W's are for me to play with. To experiment with. To explore and try different approaches and solutions.

Naturally, I couldn't do that (flip flop and be indecisive) where there are certain expectations for a finished piece (like in a commission situation) or if there were a deadline,  but I think of these as gifts to myself to experiment with abstraction or color combinations or paint application or what have you.

So I fully expect some- may be many- of these to not come out at all. If I come away with 50 good ones, I'll be very happy. If I come away with 20, I'd still be pretty happy, because the 80 failed ones will have taught me a lot!

I highly recommend exercises like these. Why not do a 100 B/W from your gesture drawings. I guarantee you'll learn a ton. Besides, what else are you going to do with those old drawings?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Yes, I Do Use Photo References

Rendezvous, 18 x 18 inches, oil on linen

Yes, I do use photo references. Hardly ever for landscapes, and usually not for in-studio figurative works. But I need structural references when I'm painting cityscapes and figures in environments outside of the studio - like this one I'm posting today.

The thing is, I'm not a very good photographer. I can take decent photos if I all the planets aligned at the point when I press the shutter, but that rarely happens. Consequently, if I'm out in the city taking reference photos, I'm not thinking too much about specific paintings. I'm just shooting (often while driving) anything that catches my eye. What I end up is a ton of crappy snapshots. 

But that's OK, I always find a few that has potential. The thing is, these photos never result in good paintings if I just painted them as they are. They need to be altered, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically, in order for a workable composition to emerge. If I were a really good photographer, this may not be the case, but like I said, I'm not.

Here's the reference photo I used to make the painting;

What do you think? Taking liberties? You bet. For me, photo references need to offer information without which I can't build a painting. In this case, I needed the reference for the gestures of the couple. I can't make that up.  But everything else is supporting cast, you see. I simplified the environment to showcase the two figures. 

Using the photo reference this way, it's important to be clear about what's essential and what's not. And in order to know what's essential, you need to first have an idea about what the painting is going to be about. This is the concept. Composition supports the concept, and visual elements are manipulated to make an effective composition. If you are very clear about the concept, the editing decisions shouldn't be too difficult or confusing. 

Is it important that the girl be wearing a sweatshirt? It wasn't important for my concept, but depending on your concept, the answer may be yes. And if so, is it important that it be blue? Do her pants have to be red? Does he have to be wearing a whit t-shirt? Shorts? Does the cafe wall have to be green? Why?

In art school, the instructors in some classes would pummel us with questions like these in an attempt to get us students to think more deeply about the concept, and I think it's good practice even if you aren't in school. 

My aim was to create a sense of narrative which hinted at, but not explain, what the story was between these two people. I didn't want to spell it out for the viewer. I wanted the viewer to come up with his own storyline. 

I changed their clothes to suggest there was some kind of story beyond just two people hanging out. The dark color of the dress allowed me to create contrast there, so that the woman became the primary focus. One of the first decisions I made was to assign primary and secondary roles to the two figures, since I didn't want the two to have equal visual weight.  

Although I changed the clothing, I did refer to the photo to get the light/shadow pattern on the woman. The man ended up in a dark suit in the shadow, so that I may create more mystery, and also play with the design by losing a lot of the edges of his contour.

The woman's face being in shadow, and the man's entire head being in shadow, obscuring their identities, is intentional and an essential device in creating that sense of anonymity. I think the viewer can relate more to a painted figure if the figure's specific identity is not clearly defined. If you're familiar with my figurative work, you may have noticed that I do this a lot. Check it out.

In order to for the guy's head to be in shadow, I included the awning at the top of the painting. The lettering gave me an opportunity to include sharp, carefully drawn marks, adding to the variety of paint application I used in the picture.  I only showed a section of the words and the street number, because that was enough to accomplish what I wanted the lettering for, and I didn't want this to be a specific place.

Being faithful to reference photo works in some cases, but for me, copying a photo doesn't give me any pleasure at all. Because my photos are mere snapshots, often random, they are usually not based on ideas. Without an idea to drive the composition, I would just be going through the motions. (Even a study or an exercise has a purpose. Or should.) In that sense, my reference photos provide necessary information, but if I want to express an idea with my painting, making a painted version of a photograph will never work.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Windy City

Windy City, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen

One of my favorites from my Chicago series.  The greenish grey color that make up most of the painting is done with black, white, and yellow ochre. Just different amounts of each to create variations of one another. I probably had Transparent Oxide Red on the palette as well, and mixed it in a little bit to get a warmer variation here and there, but not much.

I introduced a few high chroma notes to break up the monotony, but I tried to limit color as much as possible. Why? Because I didn't think I needed them to get the mood I wanted. 

There are a couple of key strategic moves here to make this work. One is backlighting. Backlit objects naturally lend themselves to silhouette treatments, and that means flat shapes which are recognizable without details nor modeling. Flat shapes are much simpler than something that has to be defined through light and shadow patterns, but they have to be interesting and strong. 

When we view visual elements in a painting as flat shapes, it's much easier to push abstraction because we're not worried about rendering form to make something believable. Silhouettes are already flat shapes, so the mental jump from representational to abstraction is easier.

If a shape is so strong that you only need to define a part of it for it to be recognizable, it gives us further opportunity to abstract. We can connect shapes of similar value - in my painting, the foreground figure to the left and the right both lose a chunk of their contour to an adjacent/overlapping shape, yet they clearly maintain their reconizability. 

Connecting shapes simplifies the design, and more often than not creates a stronger impact. 

Backlighting also amplifies the atmospheric effect. So in order to create a believable sense of a backlit environment, I emphasized the atmospheric perspective in the buildings by making the values much lighter as we go back in space. The rate of increase in values is more drastic than if I were trying to represent a  less atmospheric condition. (the distance from the foreground to the farthest building might only be a quarter or half mile)  I didn't really worry about color and temperature being affected by atmosphere because this was pretty much a monochromatic set up.

The middle figure in the front is my focal point. The blond hair is the only place in the painting that color is used, and the value contrast there really helps to draw the eye there.  I also intentionally used more sharp edges and value contrasts in the rest of the figure as well. If you compare the middle figure with the ones toward the edges, it's easy to see the differences in the use of sharp edges and value contrasts. 

Overall, it looks pretty loosely painted, and it is, except for a select few areas where the edges were critical in order to define the gesture. Also I snuck in some linear perspective cues in the sidewalk, and the top left edge of the building with the windows. Additional suggestion of perspective is found in the left most building halfway up (see that slightly dark stroke?) and in the crosswalk lines. You can find more if you look closely, but I tried to obscure most of the initial perspective lines and leave just enough to define the space. 

The horizon line / eye level is that of an average person standing on level ground, which makes it easy to place figures in the picture; no matter where they are – close, far, left, right, or in the middle – their heads line up at the same eye level. I can also place cars more or less accurately - the roofs of sedans and coupes would be slightly lower than than the eye level, SUVs at or slightly higher, and trucks and buses above eye level. 

If you're transposing a photo, you don't have to worry about this stuff, but I find that photos are never perfect and I always need to move figures and cars around in order to design a better composition. Understanding the basic rules of linear perspective will allow you to do this, rather than be a slave to photo references, so it's well worth spending the time to learn the basics!