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 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!

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