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. 

. . . 

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!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Head Study After Sargent

Charcoal drawing by John Singer Sargent

First, I want to thank everyone who came out to the opening of my exhibition last weekend at the Christopher Hill Gallery! The art looked really good all hanging together in the beautiful gallery space, and the reception was a lot of fun! It was great to see friends whom I hadn't seen in a long time, and to have met some new friends too~

OK so today, I'm going to share a recent head study I did as a demo. I took process shots along the way, but I found out afterward that my photos weren’t all that good - the white balance on my camera was set wrong.  But I thought I’d show you anyway - it may still be worthwhile.

I am using a charcoal drawing by J.S.Sargent as reference for this one. As I hadn’t painted heads in a while, I wanted to keep things simple. I decided to just use the Zorn palette - Titanium White, Ivory Black, Cad Red Light, and Yellow Ochre. 

I toned the canvas lightly with a mixture of black, red, ochre and Gambol. Mostly black with red and yellow to warm it up a bit.

I started my drawing with a small brush, using the same puddle. Just trying to get the shapes reasonably accurate. Paying particular attention to the distances between hairline, brow, and bottom of the nose. 

Then I started more careful measurements (eyeballing, but a more careful eyeballing) using the glabella area as my epicenter. This is a good place to start because it’s bony and has a lot of sharp edged shapes that don’t move around. 

I tried to get the overall shape of the head in the ball park, but I don't commit to a tight outline. Not that I could get it precisely anyway. Then I start getting placements of features by going to the glabella and working outward. In the end, the outer edges of the face / head is measured out from the middle out, and the adjustments are made to the initial drawing that way.

I placed the dark shapes of the brow, eye, and the shadow under the nose (which defines the bottom of the nose). I typically have a hard time judging distances between the brow and the eye, and between the eye and the nostril wing, so I tried to do this very carefully. 

The distance between the brow and the hairline, and the distance between the nose to the chin are easy to adjust later, so I’m not too worried at this point. As long as I have reasonably humanoid proportions, I'm OK with that. For now.

I then knocked in the shadow side with the same thin paint. I didn’t make it too wet - just lightly scrubbing in - but I could have made it washy like watercolour as well. I don’t think one method is better than the other, except that with the wash method, you have to let it dry a bit before moving on.

A little more work with the underpainting. Just blocking in the shadow pattern doesn’t give me the “big sculpt”, so I tried to emphasize the blockiness of the volume at this stage. I see now that I didn’t quite get the turn of the form on the temple area - that should have been addressed here as well.

Now I start in with colors. Before I started, I got several puddles going on my palette, primarily to make decisions on major color relationships between shadow, darker light, and lighter light areas. As I haven’t painted with the Zorn palette in a long time, I thought I needed to familiarize myself with the color range before I put paint on the canvas. 

I want to emphasize that my aim in premixing puddles is not so I can approach it like color by numbers. I'm just trying to get a feel for the major relationships. The puddles I mixed are not so big, so I do have to keep mixing and adjusting as I go forward from here. 

Then, I just blocked in the head, trying to maintain the big sculpt. The original drawing doesn’t give us any info on the shadow side - it’s very dark - so I just blocked it in very dark.  Later, I might be able to give it a little more information but I didn’t want to guess at it without the overall context, so I made the decision to leave that dark and simple for now.

Had I decided to block in the shadow side at a lighter value, I would have had to provide more information in there. Lighter value assumes it’s illuminated, which means information will become visible. If the information is not available, one would have to either make it up, or hide it somehow. 

Blocked in the hair and the mustache. Also gave a softer turning edge to his left temple.

Working around the eye socket and the nose, a little more modeling and adding some warmth to the skin in those areas, while cleaning up a few edges. 

With the Zorn palette, warming up means increasing the amount of red and /or yellow ochre in the mix. (That's all we got!) Obviously, because the original reference is in black and white, I'm making up the colors on this study. Certain areas being warmer or cooler are more or less generic tendencies of an average head. 

Integrating the skin with the hair to achieve a very soft edge at the hairline. 

Darkened the shadow side of the mustache as well. 

Cleaned up around the eye socket so he doesn’t look like he has a black eye.

Dropped the value around the chin area - I needed more overall vertical value change of the big sculpt, so that the front plane of the face has more of a curve from top to bottom, underneath all the features. It’s easy to lose sight of this.

A little bit of definition in the shadowy area under the mustache, and around his left eye (bag underneath, etc.)

Defined the hairline a little bit more by painting in darker areas between hair and skin, but still keeping them very soft. A few sharper (but not super sharp) edges are present where hair casts a shadow on to the skin. The original drawing has some dark, sharp lines but John is using the line as an expressive device here. If he were to paint the same head, he wouldn’t make those notes.

Made the plane changes a little subtler, a little softer. (forehead area and front-to-side plane change)

Decided the skin tone needed a little more variation, so added blue-leaning cool tone at the temple (lit side) and green-leaning one around the mandible. The nose became redder as well.

Subdued the eye detail in the shadow side, a little more paint in the lightest areas. Modeled his dome a little more. 

Background and clothes. I did the clothes first. When I painted the dark background, the lopsidedness of his hair became apparent. So I fixed that after I took this shot.

At this point, I’m just making minor adjustments. Making sure the big forms turn, and the little forms turn, and nothing jumps out. Softening and sharpening edges in strategic areas.

Here’s where I stopped. The hair is fixed, The highlights on the nose and the eyelid taken down a notch. 

Some of the dark notes within the shadow area were too harsh so I knocked those down too. 

On the forehead, I defined the transition plane from light to just before the core shadow more clearly - this isn’t in John’s drawing, but the painting seemed to need it. 

The sharp edge of the shoulder against the dark background would be a no-no in a traditional painting - that form, after all, has to turn away from us. I just like doing that as a nod to myself. 

I think that’s it. I hope you found this interesting!

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Start of a Cityscape Painting

Wash & Dry, 36 x 36 inches, oil on linen

I found some photos on my cell phone that I'd forgotten about. They are some of the early stages of the painting Wash & Dry, which is one of the pieces I did for the upcoming show at the Christopher Hill Gallery.

They're just cell phone snapshots so admittedly not the best quality, but I thought they may be of interest. As usual, I'll try and describe what I was thinking and doing with each shot.

The canvas is 36 x 36 inches. The composition is a variation on a smaller painting that I did several years ago. I made a grid on the canvas and transferred the main elements - just the big shapes, no detail. 

Then I went ahead and used a brown wash (Asphaltum + Gambol) to indicate the shadow areas. With sunny scenes with clear light / shadow patterns, the separation of light and shadow is what I look for. At this point I ignore local values - that is to say, it doesn't matter how light or dark the actual thing is. I'm only interested in describing where the shadows are.

You can see my "underpainting" isn't very tight or tidy. I don't get into details or precise values. Just indicating where the shadows are, is enough. I can move on to opaque colors from here.  I started with the pale yellow wall of the building on the left - I didn't have to start there, but it seemed easy enough and it was a big shape, so I thought, as good a place to start as any.

I moved on to block in –opaquely and thinly– other big shapes; the building next door, the awning, and the sign above the awning, and the sidewalk and the street surfaces. Although I'm still not precise with colors and values, I'm trying to get them in the ball park at this point. Some thought goes into which big shapes are lighter or darker than which other big shapes.

General hue directions for the shapes are decided here, too. But again, just in the ball park. Not yet precisely determined.

Getting the darker shapes darker - all part of establishing value relationships of the major shapes. I cleaned up the edges a little bit while I was at it.

Not the best photo but you can see that the dark window shapes are still very thinly painted. I like to paint everything opaque, except  the dark darks. Notice I didn't say except the shadows.  Some shadows aren't all that dark, and if I can see color or detail in those shadows, I paint them opaque.

Later when I paint sunlight on some parts of these windows, I'll paint those opaquely, because the values won't be as dark.

A little more paint on the surface - cleaning up some shapes and breaking up the awning into two values - top lighter than front. I'm also starting to define some smaller shapes as well.

Above shows the edge of the fire escape. The "balcony" part of the structure is essentially a rectangular box. I think I took this picture to show the importance of getting the perspective correctly.   It's a small shape, but the accuracy of drawing makes a huge difference. If it involves a vanishing point, you'll want to make sure it's done right. Otherwise the building will be a collection of wonky parts that won't look right. If you're lucky, it'll look intentionally expressive. In most cases, it just looks like a badly executed painting.

Simplified block in of the windows. Just the shadows on the window shades, and the dark shapes where the shades don't cover. Details such as trim,  panes, glass, cast shadows from the frames all come later, if at all. 

Sometimes I don't add any detail, if the painting looks good without them. If you put the details in too soon, you don't have that option. Sure, you can always take out detail later, but it takes some experience to recognize which details are unnecessary. 

Here I am trying to figure out the cast shadow from the fire escape. The ladder casts a long shadow across the building's surface, and I wanted to make sure they were believable. I used a straight edge (a $2 wooden yard stick from Lowes) to draw the lines with a sharp pencil. I laid the straight edge right on top of the wet paint to do this. You can see below that it kind a made a mess of things.

I actually do this on purpose now. I've come to realize that the mess is an integral part of the process. It adds to the visual texture (if not physical, tactile texture) of the surface, and though I may paint over it, while it's there it reminds me that the surfaces need some sort of visual activity. It reminds me not to smooth out every shape. Variation within a given shape can happen in many ways - value, color, thickness of paint, the type of brush strokes, etc - but if I'm not mindful, I tend to end up over rendering and end up with a boring color-by-numbers look. The presence of the mess forces me to treat these windows (or whatever I'm painting) as abstract shapes, and not render them literally.

After I got the lines drawn with the pencil, I blocked them in with darker, grayed down colors of what was already there. It's important that the color and value relationship of the original big-shape block-in be more or less established. Otherwise this tedious part of painting straight lines will have to be re-done later when I decide I had the big shapes all wrong. (Which is often the case, I admit) 

If there is one important lesson here, it's this; Work out the big relationships first, details later. Sorta like life, huh?

I'm sorry to say that after this point, I completely forgot to take any more pictures. As I get into the painting, and especially when I start getting more abstract, I really become immersed in the process and it's rare that I remember to take frequent breaks to take photos. 

One of these days, I'll do a proper process thing, I promise!

But for now, I hope you found at least the start of it interesting.

Wash & Dry , and many other new pieces will be on display at the Christopher Hill Gallery. Urban Light, a three-man show with James Kroner and Nobuhito Tanaka opens this Saturday, October 10th. If you're int he area, come on out and check out some great paintings and sip some wine with me!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Exhibition of New Works in Healdsburg, CA!

Sam's, 36 x 36 inches, oil on linen

Not that I need to explain myself for posting again so soon after the last one (I do feel a little guilty when I neglect this blog), but I want to let you know that I will be in an upcoming three-man exhibition at the Christopher Hill Gallery in Healdsburg, CA.

I am going to be showing with two very talented painters, James Kroner, and Nobuhito Tanaka - both of whom paint some great cityscapes. I think our styles will look awesome together. 

I have been working on pieces for this show for the past several months. I had some doubts along the way whether I'd be able to come up with enough worthy pieces by the deadline, but it looks like I'm going to make it (whew~). 

Pale Blue San Francisco, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

The show opens on Saturday, October 10th, and there will be a second-day reception on the 11th as well. If you're in Northern California, please come to the opening! I think this is going to be a really, really cool show!

Three for Lunch, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen

I have both cityscapes and figurative works for this show.  With this group of paintings, I pushed further into abstraction and self expression, and I feel very good about the result. In fact I wouldn't mind keeping some of these for myself, but alas, I promised 15 pieces, so I'm going to deliver all of them.

Memories Return, 20 x 16 inches, oil on linen

Like this one, Memories Return. I freaking love this painting. I hope it goes to someone who loves it as much as I do and not buy it just because it matches their couch or something.  The title, Memories Return, is a reference to Thelonious Monk's timeless ballad, Round Midnight.  I was listening to it while painting this and I believe it really influenced the outcome of the painting. Listen to Miles' version and you tell me.

Blues for Cello, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

Healdsburg is a really quaint little town in the heart of Sonoma Wine Country, and the gallery is a beautiful space right in the middle of town. 

If you're in Northern California, and are looking for something to do on the weekend of October 10th, why not come out to Healdsburg and enjoy some art and wine? Make a weekend out of it!

Christopher Hill Gallery
326 Healdsburg Avenue
Healdsburg, CA


'Hope to see you there!!

Friday, September 25, 2015

100 Figure Studies Project - No. 14

A Familiar Uncertainty, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

If you have been following Studio Notes for a while, you may remember that last year (or was it the year before?) I started this project where I set out to do 100 figure studies in black and white. This was actually an assignment that I gave to my students as a challenge of sorts, and in an effort to walk the walk as well as to encourage, I decided to do the challenge myself. 

For the most part, these studies were to be done using short-pose (2 to 20 minutes) drawings as references. (I gave the students the option to use Old Master drawings as references if their own didn't have enough information)

It took a while but I did my 100, and along the way, I had this idea to use these studies, once I reached my goal,  for experimentation and to take them further. This summer has been quite busy with other projects and commitments so I haven't been able to do much on this personal project, but I've been able to do a few. 

For this one, I remembered to take some process shots early on, so I thought it would be interesting to share. This one is no.14.  The number is chronological at the time of the b/w study - I'm not necessarily finishing them up in that order. 

This is my original drawing, pencil on paper. It's probably a 10 or 15 minute pose- the drawing is small. I'm working on an ordinary copy paper. 

Using the drawing as a reference, I did this black and white study. It's a little sloppy but I liked it. I could have just kept it as is, but that wasn't my plan so I had to get over feeling too precious about it and just dive in.

The first thing I did was to draw back into it and make some corrections. Mainly, I wanted the figure to be sitting slightly more upright (a la the original drawing) I used a thinned out brown color (Asphaltum) and redrew with a small brush.

This may seem like a scary thing to do, but it isn't at all, because if I really messed it up, I can just wash it off with medium or solvent and wipe it clean, and start again (because the underlying painting is totally dry). No risk here. I didn't have to do that, but it's nice to know that I can always restart.

I then mixed my flesh tones–one for the light side, and one for the shadow side–and blocked in the figure. The light / shadow pattern is already there in black and white, and I also have the original drawing to refer to, so this was a straightforward task. 

The initial block-in was very simple. Now I it was time to add some variations - I began by adding violets to the shadow side. At this point, I have no idea whether I'll keep that color or not. Unlike my plein air studies which are more or less representational without too much mucking about, my studio paintings –especially figures and cityscapes–are processes of abstraction without a specific end-image in mind. I allow myself to take risks, experiment, push and pull, re-do passages, and change my mind as many times as necessary. 

I also knocked in the bedsheet in light and shadow. I  imagined a simple white bed sheet, so I warmed up the light side by adding yellow, and cooled down the shadow side by adding blue-violet and dropping the value. The light-shadow temperature shift is more or less consistent with that on the figure. 

The figure now has another, lighter value added. Not strictly highlights, but moving in that direction - we now start to see some volume.

I added color to the background and on the floor. Again, I don't know whether I'm keeping these colors. Chances are, I'll paint over them more than once or twice. 

This is after several hours. I forgot all about taking photos - sorry. But you can see I pushed the color of light a little bit, so all the lit areas have more yellow in them. I'm experimenting with textures and edges with each layer. Lost edges can be seen at her calf and shin, among other places. 

One big change here is that I decided to light the front plane of the bed. Before, it was in shadow but there was also shadow within this shadow (the lower leg casting it). This was a little confusing so I made the decision to light it more clearly. The other option was to get rid of the sharp edge of that cast shadow from the lower let, but I recognized that I would be throwing away an excellent opportunity to play with the abstract shape in that area. If I got rid of it, or had softened the edge (as I would have had to, if the whole front plane were in shadow) the sharp-edged shape couldn't exist. I'd also end up with a sliver of light going down the far side of her shin. While it's not impossible to work with, something so linear and contrasty (it would be a sliver of light surrounded by shadow) would have too much unwanted impact. 

When I lit the entire front plane, one problem it presented was that the light shape(s) of the bed extended all the way to both edges of the canvas and felt like it was leading the eye off the page. It  also seemed too simplistic. By adding a cast shadow to the left (shadow cast from an unseen bedside table?) and darkening the right hand side slightly, the problem was alleviated. 

When I pushed the yellow in the lights, the blues in the shadows became too much, so I grayed them down. By now most of the surface have had to be painted and repainted a couple of times. I spend a lot of time losing edges in unexpected places, and re-establishing them once I confirmed that it didn't work.

I thought I was done here, but when I looked at it after letting it sit around for a few days, I decided it was too...safe. I've been trying to push abstraction more with other paintings, and this one didn't look abstract enough, so I went back into it.

And this is my result. It has a lot more texture, and obscured edges. I kept asking myself, just how much information do I need  in order for the figure to be a figure? I kept taking things out, putting things back in. I like that the anatomy is almost lost in many of the areas. 

I toned down the yellow as well. I liked the combination of yellow and blue that I had, but perhaps not in this picture. I made a note to try using that in another painting. 

The right edge of the bed now shows a corner - you actually see a piece of the foot of the bed, which allowed me to darken that area into shadow more reasonably. I lost the swoosh of the folds, but having that curve there didn't make good design sense (it was counter to other movements in the composition) so good riddance. 

I kept flip flopping, too, whether to make the face darker than the background. In the previous stage, the face area was light on dark. In the final it's dark on light. I think it could work either way, just a different mood. 

The photo made it look darker than it actually is - I'm reminded just how difficult it is to photograph dark, gray paintings accurately.  

I think that I could have stopped at an earlier stage and I would have had an OK painting. Five years ago, I would have. but with these 100 studies, I promised myself that I will use them for experimentation - taking risks, and finding out what happens if I did something I wouldn't normally do to a straightforward representational painting.  If by taking myself out of my comfort zone I ruin one of these paintings - or all 100, I'm OK with that because I will have learned a lot of things that I otherwise would never have.  

Luckily, I like what I ended up with No. 14. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Plein Air Sketch - Bainbridge Island Demo

Well it's been forever since my last post! Sorry about that, it's been a super busy summer and I have been occupied elsewhere. Right now I'm working on putting together a group of paintings for an upcoming show - more on that later - but I couldn't neglect Studio Notes any longer! 

As usual I struggled to come up with an idea for a post - then I remembered that during my workshop on Bainbridge Island a few months ago, I did a demo and my friend Carolyn who was attending the workshop, kindly took some shots of the process. 

So this post is that demo-I will try and talk about each step. 

The picture above shows our location on the Puget Sound. It was a beautiful day-a little chilly, but perfect for painting. I chose this view because I wanted to include a building or some other man made structure in my demo, mainly so that I can talk about drawing and perspective, and it's much easier to show the light and shadow separation on a solid geometric structure than on a organic, textured surface like foliage.

After figuring out my composition in a thumbnail (of which I don't have a photo- sorry) I proceeded to tone the canvas panel lightly with Transparent Oxide Red + Ultramarine + Gambol. I brushed this thin mixture on the canvas and wiped most of it off. The main purpose of toning the canvas is to kill the white of the canvas so that I am not judging subtle colors or values in an extreme context. 

Sometimes an artist will tone the canvas as a strategy to create harmony, or if done in a complementary color (red tone to go under green grass, for example) to create a visual "vibration", but in my case, it's just to kill the white.

On this surface I started to draw my design with the same mixture, using a small (no.1 or no.2) brush.   My underdrawing is not super tight, but I do try to get it reasonably accurate. 

Next, I used the same mixture but varying the amount of Gambol to do a sort of a three-value grisaille. The goal here is to represent the view in just a few (usually three or four) values so as reduce the complex visual reality down to a simple, organized image. 

You can see that the entire background group of trees is reduced to one dark mass. Compare against the top photo to see what I mean. See how I ignored the individual trees and color / value variations? If you consider that the purpose of these trees is  to serve as a simple backdrop for the buildings, it begins to make sense that they don't need to be defined so much. When a simple mass will do the job, why complicate the matter? True, some variations and activity back there would help to create a more believable environment, but I can do that later. At this point my aim is simple organization.

Next I switched to opaque colors and started in on the building, simply blocking in the light and shadow sides. Here I want to define the relationship between light and shadow in terms of value, color and temperature. As this is a direct sun situation, I wanted to make sure the light side is a little bit warmer than the shadow side. 

This is not a high-key impressionist painting, so I'm not emphasizing the color of the light. That is to say, the light side and the shadow side of the building don't show a big jump in color. Both are just slight variations of the local color.  This is important because I've just made a conscious choice to paint this more tonally than Impressionist-color approach, and I must maintain this way of relating light and shadow throughout the painting. If I do a tonal approach in one area of the painting but change my mind and "push color" a la Impressionists in another, the painting will not work. 

 I blocked in the roof. After the initial grisaille, 97% of the painting is done opaquely. The only areas where I would use transparent application are the really dark areas where I can't see any detail or color. Now, before you start arguing that you can see color in the very dark areas, please remember that I've already established the tonalist language here, and I am speaking only in that context.

I blocked in the foreground and the trees in the back. As you can see the trees now have some variations, but the values are close enough so that if you squint the entire tree mass still groups together to form a simple backdrop. Note, too, that the variations that I put in my painting - nor the shapes of the trees for that matter - do not conform to the actual view. I'm not interested in copying what I see because that's not important. What's important is that they serve to support my "star".  I do want them to look like trees, but beyond that, the details are not relevant to my main statement.

So the point here is that as long as they look convincing they don't need to be copied. Therefore, I am free to manipulate this element to maximize my statement. For example, see in the top photo, how close the value of the trees are to that of the roof? In my painting, I made the separation greater to give more impact to my statement. If you didn't know what it actually looked like, you wouldn't know or care, would you. So tweak away to make a more effective statement!

I added the sky, some details on the buildings and the blue crane thing, worked on the water, and tied up most of the loose ends.

Oh, I forgot to mention that a little earlier the tide had started to rise. It didn't get nearly as high as how I painted it, but I took cues from the rising tide and made up the foreground.

I used a knife's edge to knock in some of the really sharp notes like the railing.

The pilings are my attempt at suggesting what they looked like, not actually measured and placed carefully. Again, I wanted them to be recognizable, but tediously copying them in their exact places were not necessary for my purposes. Nor relevant.

I lightened the water and added some saturation. Also the reflection of the boathouse was knocked in. Here I tried to keep it somewhat subdued. It's always tempting to emphasize reflections in the water because it makes the water look more like water. It's also easy to overdo it, too. It's important to remember what your main statement is, and if the reflection supports that statement or if the reflection is the statement, by all means emphasize it. But if it's just a bit player in your picture, you don't want it to be so loud that it takes away from the star. I need to think like a conductor or a director and orchestrate the various players in my painting so that I may make the best music possible. 

Just as I made the reflection a little quieter, I lessened the impact that the tree line makes against the sky, by darkening the sky a bit. I didn't want a big value contrast there because that would definitely take away from the focal area. Having a softer, non-geometric edge helps, too. 

This demo took a little over an hour. Sometimes a sketch this size takes two or three hours. Other times, half an hour. For a workshop demo, I try to control the amount of time I take, and I force myself to stop at a certain time lest the students don't have enough time to paint. But I'm not always successful and sometimes in my haste I crash and burn. Which is humiliating so I try to avoid that situation. Haha~ This time it went well and I was able to cover a lot of ground in a short time.

The panel I used is Classen's No.99 oil primed linen mounted onto a piece of MDF board. This is my favorite surface.

The colors are as follows:

Blues: Ultramarine, Cerulean, and Ivory Black
Yellows: Cad Lemon, Cad Deep, and Yellow Ochre
Reds: Cad Red Light (or Permanent Red), Alizarin, and Transparent Oxide Red
White: Titanium white.
I usually don't have tube greens, oranges or violets.

If you have any questions, please use the comment box - I will try to answer them if I can!