Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Plein Air Paintings from Paso Robles

A Story Not Yet Written, 12 x 9 inches, oil on linen

A few weeks ago, I participated in the annual Paso Artsfest, a big celebration of the arts in the beautiful Paso Robles area of California. Some twenty artists were invited to paint in Paso Robles and its surrounding areas (and boy, there is so much to paint!) , and show our efforts at the end of the week.

I had a great time painting and hanging out with some of my friends who were also in the event. I used to get so stressed out doing these plein air events. Over the years I've done many, and have learned to just relax and enjoy it. Nowadays it's like a working vacation with a bunch of friends who speak the same language - my tribesmen. (and women) What's not to love?

OK so I did a handful of paintings in two and a half days. On the first morning, I woke up and noticed that it was very gray outside. Paso Robles is not far from the coast, so the foggy mornings are not surprising. Still, I was thinking of painting sunny views so I had to restrategize.  I like painting overcast landscapes too, but I was so out of practice that I felt like I needed something not so complicated. For me, direct light is somewhat easier than diffused light when I'm feeling rusty.

With a cup of tea in my hand I walked around town and found a cool little shop window display; A pretty dress lit up by halogen lights surrounded by a few colorful objects. It's basically a still life, right?  I set up immediately and painted it. It was a great subject for a warm up because nothing moved and the light was unchanging.

Later that day, I attempted to paint an old truck at an old radiator repair shop that I saw in town. This one didn't turn out so well - my drawing was sloppy, and the midday light was so flat and harsh, I couldn't see any subtle colors. Normally I would switch gears and start making up my own color schemes, but I was kind of stuck on painting it "as is", just to prove to myself that I can. Well, I couldn't. So I gave up after an hour and a half. I didn't wipe it though. I thought I could work on it later in the studio and come away with an OK painting. I'll post it when I get around to it.

Distant Thunder, 9 x 12 inches, oil on linen

I've learned to pace myself at these kinds of events. Plenty of break time is needed in between painting sessions to recharge the ol' mojo, or I just can't focus. So a burger, ice tea (no beer or wine until the work is done for the day!) and a nap before the third painting. I did notice the day before, when I was driving down from Sacramento, that there was this spectacular cloudscape in the afternoon toward the Eastern skies and I had hoped it would materialize again for me to paint. Truth be told, if it didn't happen, I was going to make it up anyway because it was just so beautiful.

Luckily, the clouds came back. I found a nice vantage point just outside of town on a  side of a dirt road, and painted those clouds. I could hear rumblings of distant thunder, and even lightning a couple of times as I painted. At one point it started raining so I just quickly pulled my easel under the back hatch of my SUV and continued to work.  I think it came out rather well.

Mission San Miguel, 9 x 12 inches, oil on linen

The next morning was gray too. If the previous day was any indication, I figured it would clear up by late morning. I drove out to Mission San Miguel, and started my painting. Just getting the drawing in and a bit of grisaille, anticipating the shadow patterns. I thought I'd get it all set up and go to colors once the sun came out. 

Well the block in didn't take long and the sun was not even close to coming out, so I turned my easel around and started another block in, of the view facing away from the Mission;

The Far Side of the Tracks, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen

And when the sun finally came out, I got first the Mission painting done, and then after lunch, painted The Far Side of the Tracks.

With the fog burning off and the blue skies intensifying incrementally, this was a very different sky scape from the last one. With this one, I wanted to get the feel of the hot, dry and dusty rural California landscape. I didn't change much of anything on this one - the barren hills are not much to look at, but it is what it is.

Wanderlust, 12 x 16 inches, oil on linen

And this is the last of the bunch. I set up on River Road in San Miguel, and painted in full sun, and considerable wind. Not the most comfortable of conditions, but hey, that's the nature of this game, no? The big clouds were back again, and I tried it one more time. I can't get enough of these cloudscapes! The photo shows more saturated purples than the actual painting - I'll try and get a better photo on my next shoot day.

It was a fun week hanging out with friends and painting, and even though the sales were less than ideal, I enjoyed it nonetheless. My only regret is that I didn't have time to go wine-tasting. There are some fantastic Pinot Noirs made in Paso Robles that I wanted to try, but not this time. May be I'll just take a painting trip down there on my own time, and do a little tasting then...

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Chameleon Couch

She Turned Away, Hiding Her Grin, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

I started this one with a model, working from observation for the first three hours. Notice the couch is blue - it's the same couch as the one seen in the last post, and in many others I've posted in the last few years. The actual couch is gray. I just make it different colors, largely on whim. Sometimes I cover it with colored (or not) fabric to get a feel for the color environment, but often I just respond to the color scheme that I've decided on at the start of the painting.

The shape of the couch varies in my paintings also. I can change the height of the couch back, whether it's straight, curved, or irregularly shaped.  It's not a big deal, really. The arms of the couch (not shown in this painting) are a little trickier to invent and transform, but with careful attention to perspective and with a little practice, that too, is doable.  If you want authenticity of style or detail,  of course the best thing to do is to get the furniture you actually need and set it up properly. But as you can plainly see in my case, the specifics of the furniture isn't what I'm after. 

The more generic the furniture, the easier it is to morph into something that works for many paintings. 

Having been an illustrator for many years, I'm comfortable working this way. Of course it doesn't always work out the way I envisioned, but the process of trying to get it right and failing at it, sometimes gives me pleasantly unexpected results. And sometimes it blows up in my face. But that's life~

The main thing is that I get the pose and the gesture that works. The edge of the seat, in this particular painting, has to be pretty convincing in terms of responding to gravity, and that's not made up, but if you notice that the two sides plunge towards the legs in slightly different angles? That is designed, not observed. So little things like that need to be considered everywhere if a painting were to be composed.  Mindlessly copying what we see, even if accurately done, will only give us an imitation of reality, lacking in artist's intent and expression. I think many a realist painters may disagree with me, but if you ask the best of them, they will tell you that good painting is not achieved by merely noodling the hell out of whatever they're trying to depict. 

But that's another day's topic. The following are a bunch of paintings featuring the same couch.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


Prologue,  16 x 20 inches, oil on linen

This is a recent painting that I did. 

It's 16 x 20 - a pretty good size–I'm trying to work larger of late. For reference, I used an old charcoal sketch - a 20 minute drawing, which had no color information so I made up the colors as I painted. I work this way often. I like the freedom of being able to imagine the colors and not being bound to what's in front of me. 

How long did I spend on this? May be 12 or 15 hours, over 4 or 5 sessions. I usually work a couple of hours at a time, and often at night under artificial light, so after a couple of hours, the glare on the paint surface becomes such that it's very difficult to see my strokes. I then stop, rather than fight it. I let it dry for a few days and come back to it.

When I use solvent to apply dark colors as transparent washes, the area dries matte and much lighter in value and looks completely different from areas which retained the glossy surface (because I didn't use solvent, for example)  A coat of Liquin (or any other painting medium) over the dried surface  brings back the values and lustre to the wet state, so I can judge values and colors properly. This is called oiling-in.

Often, when I come back to a dried painting to work on it some more, I end up putting paint over the whole thing, mainly because I'm looking for wet-into-wet strokes and you just can't fake that, even on top of a oiled-in surface. And I don't want to fake a stroke, anyway.

Some abstract strokes are done wet on dry. I look for opportunities to do this each time I come back to a dried painting. I love the sharp edges that look like it was masked with a frisket. But I want these areas to be integrated into wet-into-wet strokes, or juxtaposed against more brushy, textural strokes, so there's quite a bit of scraping and reapplying of paint of different viscosities and opacities.

At one point I had the shadow side of the figure, including the dress, much darker so as to lose the edges between these shadows and the cast shadow shape on the couch itself, connecting them. After going back and forth a few times, I decided to lighten the shadow on the dress. because the shapes flowed better. It could have worked with a dark shadow, too. Just not the same mood.

My process for abstraction varies, but often in the beginning stages, the painting looks pretty much straightforward alla prima. More or less traditional representational direct painting. If such a thing can be defined. What I mean is that I'm just painting reasonably "realistically" in terms of colors and values, and nothing really exaggerated. My strokes are not super tight, but not really all that loose either.

Abstraction happens slowly for me. First i'll lose one edge, then another. Then I might redefine a lost edge. Then I may lose it again. After a while, I'll get braver and start losing edges in unexpected areas. (Expected areas being dark shapes adjacent to each other) I may load up an area with color, and using a knife or a brush or a scraper or a finger, drag that paint into an area next to it, whether the color/values are close or not.  Then I may do the same from the other side back into the original shape. Obviously colors and edges become mixed in ways that has nothing to do with rendering of form, and this often brings about surprising results. It's easy to do this in areas of low risk, like the green couch into the dark background. Not so easy (psychologically) to do where drawing is critical, like the lit part of the figure into the background.

Naturally, I become protective of areas where it took a lot of work to get it to look like what it should, whether it be a head, or an arm, or something which requires careful perspective drawing like buildings and cars. Chances of losing all that hard work in an instant is very high, so it takes me a while before I work up the courage to do those areas.

But once I'm ready, I don't turn back. Because I can't. More often than not, cursing immediately follows the first try at this non-representational integration of adjacent shapes. Then I'm resigned to do it all over again by finding the more traditional, realistic depiction again- that is to say, I painted again realistically, so that I may take another whack at it.

The second time is easier. Because I'd been able to resurrect the believable head (or arm or car or whatever) once. I feel better about my capacity to repaint that difficult passage. And because I feel more confident, I'm willing to take the risk again, and this time, I may smoosh the areas with less trepidation, and that makes all the difference.

Truth be told, I sometimes have to repeat this process of painting representationally and deconstructing in a non representational manner, many, many times on one small area. If it's a labor intensive area like a human head or a hand, it can take a loooong time before I either concede defeat, or finally end up with something that works.

Seems to me like an awfully ineffective way to paint, but I haven't been able to find a way to speed things up. I guess because if I had a way to do this, that would be a formula which totally misses the point of my attitude toward abstraction. The process of abstraction for me, has to be exploration of the mysterious, grappling with something not entirely controllable, and the rush I get from going outside of my comfort zone and letting go of control.

So there. Did any of that make sense? I'm having a glass of wine as I type, so I'm not really sure if I'm actually articulating what's in my head, or whether I have anything in my head worth articulating. I'll read this tomorrow and find out!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"A California Spring" Opens This Saturday, May 3rd

Almost Forgotten, 9 x 13, oil on linen

If you are a fan of landscape paintings and you live in the San Francisco Bay area, you are in for a real treat. This weekend a group show titled A California Spring opens at Holton Studio Gallery in Emeryville, and it promises to be an exceptionally wonderful collection of landscape works by some very talented artists.

Just look at this line-up;

If you're familiar with the works of these artists and noticed a bias towards tonalist painters, you'd be right. Not that this is a tonalist show per se, but all of the paintings are framed by master frame maker Tim Holton's beautiful hand crafted frames, which go so well with tonalist landscapes. It's as if the paintings and the frames were made for each other.

Actually, they were. Tim studies each painting, and makes each frame from scratch, from selecting the wood to the finish detail to give the pieces the best possible presentation. That the frames themselves are works of art, goes without saying.  It's custom framing in the purest sense of the word. 

I, and I'm sure many of the other artists in this show, selected pieces with Tim's framing in mind, too. It's a true collaboration, and if you came to see the show, I think you'll agree in recognizing just how much framing matters. 

The opening reception is this Saturday, May 3rd, from 5 - 7 pm. If you're in the area, please come join us for a great art evening. See some great paintings, meet the artists, talk art, sip some wine.

'Hope you can make it!

5510 Doyle Avenue
Emeryville, CA 94608

Monday, April 28, 2014

So How Do You Know When To Stop?

Morning on Balboa Island, 9 x 12 inches, oil on linen do you know when to stop?, asked Kevin in the comments of my last post. The short answer is, When nothing in the painting bothers you. 

Obviously, if you see an error, you have to fix it. It's like creating an important document–a resumé, say–and you spot a typo. You wouldn't leave that alone, would you?  

One common tendency for intermediate painters is to put too much in the painting, thinking more detail somehow makes the painting better, more convincing, more realistic.  But just as you wouldn't put everything you have ever accomplished in your resumé (including that time you won the beer bonging competition at the fraternity), trying to put everything into a painting is a ridiculous idea. You have to stop somewhere. But where?

In a resumé, you include only relevant information, as clearly and concisely as possible, and edit out everything that doesn't pertain to the job you're trying to get. If a piece of information isn't going to help you get that job, you don't put it in. 

How do you know if a piece of information is relevant? You think about that job you're trying to get, and determine in that context, whether the information is relevant. You have to be clear about the purpose of this resume. You have to be clear about what you want to say, and say only the things that matter in this specific situation.

Painting is much the same. It's a form of communication, so you have to be clear about what it is you're trying to communicate. What do you want to say about this particular scene? That is your concept.  Your job is to communicate that concept, and nothing more. 

In my painting above, my concept was the mood created by the backlighting in the morning. I chose a boat to use as a focal point (one part of it, really) to achieve this. All the other boats were necessary to create the environment, but none of the details on these boats had anything to do with my concept. So I didn't paint any details.  The reflection of the main boat on the water was, in actuality, very clear and visually seductive. I could have painted that, but again, that wasn't my concept, so I played it down as much as possible. 

If you're clear about your concept, it will guide you in making decisions about what to include and what to edit out. You may have to put things in and take them out just to see whether they support your concept, and that may take a long time. In fact, I spent as much or more time doing that, as I do getting the painting to look like the scene in front of me. 

When at last you're satisfied that nothing more can be added and nothing more can be taken out, and you can't spot any errors (you may be able to the next day, or three years from now, but for now, to the best of your ability, you can't spot any errors), and you've scrutinized every shape, every color, every value, and every edge to make sure they can't be improved by your current abilities, you're done.

Know what you want to say, say it, and nothing else.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Start And A Finish

Arcadia, 12 x 24 inches, oil on linen

Two frequently asked questions are "do you tone your canvas?",  and "do you do a grisaille?" My answer is "yes, sometimes."

So when do I do these things and when do I not?  I don't have a rule set in stone and I tend to follow my whim about these matters, but I have found in general that toning the canvas and doing the grisaille is very helpful when I'm painting more tonally, or in a lower key.

The main reason for toning the canvas or doing the grisaille is to kill the extreme value (white) of the canvas so that when darker values are laid on top, we don't have distracting contrasts happening due to the bright white peeking through, in between brushstrokes.  This is especially annoying when I'm painting dark trees, and seems like more work than necessary to have to knock them back afterwards.

Obviously, the darker the value of a given area, the greater the contrast between it and the white of the canvas. And if the focal area happens to be very dark, the distraction is amplified.

You can use this to your advantage, if your painting subject or style requires a lot of contrasty texture in that area. My paintings tend to be more quiet so I don't want a whole lot of that kind of activity which takes away from my statement.

Having a tone underneath your colors also helps to unify and harmonize various areas of the painting by creating a common denominator of color or tone that is sprinkled throughout the surface. Of course this would be moot if you don't let the tone show through.

But even if you cover up every square millimeter of the canvas with thick paint, the tone underneath can help to keep your harmony in check as you develop the surface.

I keep my grisaille very simple and loose. It's basically a map of value organization. I try to express the design in three values, maybe four. It's very important to keep your value structure simple if you want the design to "read".  Too many values at this stage does nothing to organize the design - don't fool yourself (as I did in my early years) into thinking more information is better. The point is organization, not copying every value that you see.  Even if you're painting very realistically, the subtle values must happen within the simple value structure. Keep squinting to make sure your initial design doesn't become fragmented as you develop your picture. It should still be there in the finished painting.

Sometimes I use a neutral monochromatic tone for the underpainting, sometimes a color is used to help create color harmony, and sometimes complementary colors are used to create a color contrast in an area - sort of a vibrating effect. 

I don't usually do the complementary thing, as (again,) I'm looking for more of a quiet-ness in my painting and color vibrations create too much activity, but sometimes I use it in the foreground to bring that area come forward and accentuate the color saturation in that area. ...which is precisely what I did in the painting I'm showing above. The reddish brown tone under the green grass creates a rich color contrast in the foreground whereas in the background, I don't want that kind of activity because the atmospheric effect is more unifying.

So when do I not tone my canvas or do an underpainting? If I know I'm going to be painting in a more of a high-keyed, sunlight filled, impressionist approach,  I'll just go right in with colors on a white surface. The white peeking through my colors brightens the entire painting. Sometimes the contrast and texture is part of the subject matter, like the shimmering sunlight reflecting off of water's surface. I usually don't like to use gimmicky effects, but if it's effective and doesn't look gimmicky, I think it's OK.  If someone looks at my painting and says, "I love how you got that effect!", then it's too gimmicky. I want the viewer to say "what a beautiful painting", and not immediately focus on some technique.

Monday, March 31, 2014

You Win Some, You Lose Some

When you see an artist's work online,  typically you're looking at finished pieces that the artist deemed good enough to show. Sometimes you get to see demos and works in progress, but these too, are ones that eventually turned out good.

You rarely see failed paintings, do you? Of course not. why would anyone broadcast their failures? It's not good for your fragile ego, and it can't be good for marketing your brand.  

But any artist knows, and anyone seriously interested in any kind of art knows, that failures are a part of the game. The great artists aren't great because they make successful paintings all the time. They're great because they've had, and have learned from, more failed paintings than your average artist has had successful ones. I mean how does one hope to learn and get better if you didn't fail?

Truth be told,  I have more failed paintings than successful ones. That is to say, most of my paintings are never shown or sold.  

So today I thought I'd share a recent failed painting. Oh, don't worry about my fragile ego - this happens so often that it doesn't affect me so much anymore. (Yes, there was a time when every failed painting caused despair )

OK, so this painting is from a figure painting session last week.  I don't have shots of earlier stages, but we start here at the end of the three hour session. As a sketch, it was OK. It wasn't great, but it wasn't really bad. The drawing was reasonably accurate, and form and colors were OK too, if predictably boring. 

What I didn't like was the way her legs didn't have enough variation. Didn't have enough brush activity. Not just her leg, but the surrounding darks as well. The way the legs were positioned didn't create a shape that were strong enough to hold interest on its own, so I needed something more than shape. I tried a few different leg positions, but of course this being after the session had ended, I didn't have the model in front of me. Sometimes I can make stuff up. Sometimes, I can't. 

Her head is scraped off too, because I didn't like that it was too literal.  If you're familiar with my work, you know that, unless I'm doing a head study, I prefer not to get too specific with the features. This is because I'm not interested in creating a portrait and communicating a specific identity. What I'm interested in is more universal, so the specific identity would get in the way. I prefer to suggest anonymity.

 And then I had this idea to put a dress or a nightgown on her. The idea was to break up the boring single shape of the legs and create two different shapes in the leg area. The fabric, and the flesh of the lower leg.

I also turned the head away slightly (more anonymity, less identity), and gave her a dark hair and a dark background so that I could connect some like-valued shapes and simplify the head area. I also lightened the background behind the upper torso, to lessen the value contrast between the figure and the background.  I wasn't trying to paint any particular piece of furniture, just putting color/values down abstractly.

I crossed her lower legs, in an attempt to create a little more dimensional interest. The legs were profile view before, which was one reason it wasn't interesting enough.

Then I thought, hmmm. Too much suggestion of the environment. I need to make it simpler! So I extended that violet gray color in the background. I made it close in value to the face to lessen the impact there (again, less information) and lightened the hair mass so that the value contrast in that entire area is decreased for the same reason. Less information = more anonymity = more mystery.

The head got too big so I started reshaping it, and it kinda became a blob.  I thought too, that I lost too much contrast overall, so I brought back some darks in the background. I tried shortening the nightgown to show her knees which would give me an opportunity to show some anatomical information that I lost by clothing her.  And the balance of shapes would be better, overall.

But of course I can't paint anatomically convincing knees without a model, so...

At this point, I saw that it was deteriorating quickly. I lost too much information which I couldn't bring back because again, I can't always make up stuff.

I was getting sloppy and careless, so it was time to concede defeat.

And so this is where I stopped. Can I get a model to sit for me again in the same position and finish the painting? Yes, but I don't want to. I've exhausted my enthusiasm for this painting. The best thing to do is to wipe it clean while it's still wet, and reuse the canvas.

This was a painting which started out as a sketch, and became a vehicle for exploration, meaning I didn't have a real concept or a plan.  I think it's important to be clear about this. Because when you're exploring, you expect that sometimes (more often than not?) you don't find what you're looking for. IF you even know what you're looking for.

Many of my successful paintings are not done this way. I do a fair number of studies and planning when I do larger paintings, and with those I know where I'm going. When I fail with those, it hurts. But with an exploratory pieces like Miss Sadface here, I don't necessarily expect to have a show worthy piece so if it  blows up in my face, it really is not a big deal.

Being unrealistic with your expectations can really mess you up, ya know?

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Galatea, 18 x 14, oil on linen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 17, 2014

Recent Cityscapes

To And Fro, 14.5 x 24, oil on linen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pursuit, 11 x 14, oil on linen

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

Ride, 11 x 14, oil on linen

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

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

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

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

Night Ride, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen

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

The Philosophers, 11 x 14, oil on linen

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

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

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

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Some Thoughts on Composition

The Regulars, 9 x 12, oil on linen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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