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 difficulty thing  even if you weren't painting a cityscape. The cityscape compounds the difficulty of color harmony because there are so many elements of seemingly unrelated, and sometimes garish colors. Although theoretically, all the unrelated local colors would be unified by the color of the light, the artist has to consciously pull them closer in order to achieve color harmony. Not easy to do. 

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

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

Modes of Transportation, 12 x 16, oil on panel

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

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

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

Aria Redux, 36 x 36 inches, oil on linen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Don't paint faces.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Pratique des Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 24, 2015

Black and White Figure Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Yes, I Do Use Photo References

Rendezvous, 18 x 18 inches, oil on linen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 20, 2015

Windy City

Windy City, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Rambling About A Moody Landscape

Arcadia, 12 x 24 inches, oil on linen

Here's a moody landscape painting. There are a lot of ways a landscape painting can be moody, but the defining characteristic for this particular painting, I think, is the sky. The colors of the sky is greyed down, yes, but perhaps more importantly, the overall value of the sky is keyed down quite a bit. 

If you compare the value of the sky to the white of webpage that surrounds it, you can see how dark it is. Just because Carlson said the sky is the lightest plane in a landscape, that doesn't mean it's necessarily very light in value. It's all relative. In fact there are many paintings out there where the sky is intentionally keyed down so the harshness of the sunlit surfaces become amplified. (Look at Sorolla!) 

Mine is not one of those harsh sunlit paintings, of course. It's just a low-key painting. 

The sky and the lit part of the foreground are about the same value in my painting, but the grass is much more saturated in color, and the area is much more visually active (brush strokes, texture, small contrasty notes) so that it comes foreword without confusing the structure. 

The interesting thing about the sky, for me, is that the pinkish hue of the clouds and the blue-grey of the background is very close in value and although they are near-complements, they're really tightly harmonized. How is this done?

It's basically the center of the pie. Both colors are so close to the center that even though they're pulling towards opposite sides of the color wheel, they remain closely related. 

I made both colors from the same pile of grey- I don't remember if I made the pinkish grey first and bent it to make the blueish grey or vice versa. It doesn't really matter which came first, actually. You can do it either way, one's not more difficult than the other. 

If on the other hand, you were trying to get a closely related complements by starting with pure hues on the opposite sides of the color wheel and mixed with each other to bring them closer, you'd probably end up with a more colorful result, unless you were pushing specifically for something this muted.

Keeping all the elements in the sky close in color and value allows the whole sky to be viewed as a unit, so as to not distract from the trees and the ground. I also made sure the brushstrokes in the sky were much quieter than the rest of the painting.

The trees are keyed way down, too. So much so that the shadow parts of the trees are almost black. Making sure these dark areas are painted thinly (compared to the lit areas) and somewhat transparently allows them to be quietly subordinate. In a low key tonal painting the shadows can be very dark and transparent, which isn't usually the case for a color-filled high key shadows of an impressionist painting. 

Here's a good tip; don't mix the tonalist language (dark transparent shadows) and the impressionist language (high key color filled shadows) in one painting, unless there's a really compelling reason to do so. Most of the time, it's best to decide on one language and stick to it. In other words, don't try to mix the dramatic values of Velazquez and the bright colored light effects of Monet in one painting. 

It looks like I've totally gone off on a tangent - haha~ Oh well, I'm just rambling. If you want to learn more about this stuff, and would like me to show you how all this applies to your painting, I invite you to come to my next plein air landscape painting workshop that I will be conducting May 1 - 3, at Winslow Art Center on Bainbridge Island, WA. Please go to their website for more info and to sign up! It's a plein air workshop, so we'll be working outside, unless the weather is uncooperative, in which case we will work indoors using photos. Either way you'll get a ton of information and individual instruction. All my trade secrets are yours for the asking :-D

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Nocturne in Blue, Nocturne in Red

Chicago Blues, 16 x 20 inches, oil on linen

After I said in the last post that I'd post a blue cityscape, I realized I had already shipped this one off and the only photo I had of it was a crappy cell phone snapshot that doesn't show much of the subtler color shifts. Damn. 

It's no secret that being a professional painter doesn't mean you get to paint all day. You have to take care of the business end of things as well - marketing, promotion, maintaining relationships with galleries, event organizers, and collectors. Packing, crating and shipping, accounting and bookkeeping, doing photo shoots, inventory, website and social media management, teaching classes and workshops, doing prep work for teaching and workshops... it goes on and on. The actual painting time, sad to say, is less than 50% of my working time. I need an assistant! But of course I can't afford one, so I have to do it all. Sound familiar? Nobody said it was going to be easy, I know, I know... 

One of the tedious and time consuming tasks is doing photo-shoots and inventory. My studio is not huge, so I don't have a permanent set up for photo shoots. Each time I do a shoot - and I try to do multiple paintings at the same session- I have to move stuff around and set up the lights and the camera. As I'm not a photographer, it takes me a while to get a satisfactory shot. And then I have to work on the file to get the colors as close as I can to the original. Then I have to enter all the pertinent information into a database, so I can keep track of where it's shipped off to. 

What makes it so inefficient for me, is that often I can't resist making changes to a painting after all the shooting and inventory-ing is done. And so I have to repeat the process, sometimes many times. I think a painting is finished, so I spend time doing all that administrative stuff, and then as soon as it's all done, I see something that needs changing. I can't leave it alone. It's like seeing a typo on your resume.  You can't possibly send it out without correcting it!

...And then there are times I have to send out paintings in a hurry and I either forget or don't have the time to take all the necessary pre-shipping steps, especially if multiple projects happening at once. 

I don't know how other artists deal with all these non-painting tasks. How do you do it? 

Midnight Crossing, 12 x 24 inches, oil on linen

OK that's enough ranting. I do have a decent photo of a recent RED cityscape nocturne, so we'll talk about this on instead. This is another Chicago painting. The color system I used is obviously the single color-theme system. Nocturnes tend to very tonal so this approach works pretty well. 

There are no color variations caused by local color shifts, so I included light sources that were different colors just to break up the monotony. 

I also organized the overall color/ value range so that the darker areas are predominantly red, then as it gets lighter, it leans to orange. and there are some yellows in and around the very light valued areas. 

In setting up the color / value structure this way, I had to be very careful not to let the more visible mid range values get too high in chroma. The orange range kept sticking out, so I had to repaint it several times to gray it down to where it wasn't an issue.

The darkest areas aren't pure black. It has a lot of red in it - I used Transparent Oxide Red, Alizarin, and Permanent Red mixed with black - to 1) harmonize with the rest of the painting, and 2) bring up the value a little bit for an atmospheric effect. All the city lights would be illuminating and bouncing around in the moisture in the air, so the dark areas needed to have a colored "veil" of sorts, in front of them.

Not so much in the foreground, but I still didn't go all the way black because I wanted to make sure the area harmonized.

The figure in the middle has no detail. I relied on gesture and a few select rim lights to pull it off. Having a few soft edges, especially in the backside of the figure, helped to give it a sense of motion, especially as it juxtaposes against the sharper edged elements in the stopped car.

Early on I had more detail in the periphery but I took them out and darkened the outer parts of the composition, so as to have more of a focus on the figure, and to make it more moody - later in the night when there are fewer pedestrians and shop lights. The decision was inspired by the title, actually. After I called it Midnight Crossing, I realized my painting looked more like prime time, what with other pedestrians and illuminated windows, so I took them all out to conform to the title.

Sometimes having a title beforehand helps a great deal in composing a painting because you're making design decision based on a solid concept. You're forced to communicate an idea, rather than impose a rationalization onto an otherwise "just a pretty picture".

I'm doing taxes this week. Ugh. I'll be back with something new after I've recovered!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Feeling Blue

Feeling Blue, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

When I get a lot of positive feedback for my "instructional" blog posts, I get into mindset that all my posts should be instructional. And then I get stuck because I can't think of a lesson that might be interesting to a lot of people. And besides, I've been blogging a long time and it feels like I've pretty much said everything I needed to say. It has become increasingly difficult to come up with anything new to say, especially if it also has to be instructional.

If I waited until I had a great idea to write about, it might be months in-between posts! Forget that, I'll just post a new painting and talk about it. Maybe a few of you might find it interesting.

So this painting is something I started in a figure session. It was initially a B/W study, but I had other colors on my palette, and I accidentally dipped my brush into a pile of Prussian Blue, which looks pretty black out of the tube. I liked the color, so I just went with it.

I used Prussian Blue, White, and Black. the black was used to tame the intensity of the blue, especially in the lighter values. Prussian with just White is just too happy looking, you see.

I painted this in two sessions. I let the first part dry before going back into it, so that I can do some glazing.

If you haven't noticed already, I have a preoccupation with lost edges. Where dark shape meets another dark shape is an obvious place to lose the edge in between, but we can do the same where a light shape meets another light shape, like the white fabric meets her butt, foot, and her knee.

Usually losing edges means simpler design and more impact. Sometimes it results in lost of information, and each time, I need to think about whether that lost information was critical. If so, I have to either put it back in, or find a way to suggest it without being literal. If I decide that the information wasn't necessary, obscuring it or losing it was the right decision.

All around the figure, I try to use a variety of edges combined with value contrasts (or lack there of). Super sharp edges coupled with high value contrast draws the eye the most, but sharp edged can also be combined with closer values to describe a well-defined but less obvious area. A soft edge combined with a variety of value contrasts are also used to manipulate the viewer's eye and to add interest.

Soft edges aren't all the same, either. Some are smooth transitions from light to dark shapes, while others might be a broken edge. Different brushes and tools produce different kind of edges, too.

My point is that there are many ways two shapes can meet, and I like to explore this variety in every painting. I often try different types of edges on one area before deciding what works best.

I usually make decisions on what areas should have the most impact - usually the focal area or some outside contour area that has a beautiful gesture – and make sure that gets a punchy edge; sharp edge combined with big value contrast.  Then the rest of the edges must be subordinate to that, so I just start playing with softness and value contrasts to make sure they're less impactful than the focal area.

I'd do the same with color saturation (in terms of manipulating impact) but this painting is monochromatic, so I didn't have to worry about that.

Another "tool" that I consciously employed in this painting (and all my other paintings) is the juxtaposition of relatively noisy and active brushstrokes in the background, against the quieter, smoother application of paint on the figure itself. I'm not using soft brushes so even my tighter areas aren't all that slick, but surrounded by expressive strokes, the figure looks smoother and more "realistic". If you enlarge the image and take a closer look, you can see that my rendering isn't tight at all.

Anyway, I like how it turned out, so I'm doing more with Prussian blue. I'll post a blue cityscape next.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


Crosswalk Shadows, 12 x 20 inches, oil on linen

OK, so I thought I was going to do another color systems post - one on high key impressionist color, but guess what, I didn't have any appropriate paintings to show you to make my points! Not surprising, considering I rarely paint that way. But I thought I'd find one or two in my archives! No. I find it kind of funny, actually.

So until I do a high-key impressionist painting (fat chance), the color systems series of posts are suspended. Sorry~

Instead I'll post and talk about some recent cityscapes that I've been working on. This is one of my Chicago paintings. I think it's a pretty good example of connecting the darks to simplify and organize.  You can actually go all the way across the painting by following the dark areas. 

The shadow areas actually has a few different values; if you look at the left side of the painting, you can see that the dark shadowy mass is one value, the sidewalk / pavement another value, and the crosswalk lines (in shadow) are still another. There are small variations within each of these shadow values, but basically I'm working with three in that area. Could I have simplified it further and bring those values together, since they're all shadow areas?

Yes, and that's kind of what I did first, in my study for this painting;

Not as much separation within the shadows. Simpler, and it still works. However, since this was a backlit situation, the light side was going to be very high key and sort of washed out. There's really not a lot of information in the lit areas. It means that most of the interesting information happens in the shadow areas. In order to make that happen, I broke up the shadow areas into a few different values, and used some local color as well. 

By contrast, the lit area has one or two very close values (to separate the painted crosswalk lines from the asphalt) and not much more. 

The red "don't walk" light adds yet another little accent make the painting feel less monochromatic.

In general, with a backlit view, the interesting stuff happens in the shadow. In order to see this interesting stuff, it has to be keyed up a bit so we can see the colors and other information. (You can't see anything in the dark!)  But not everything has to be keyed up, you can still have very dark areas where either the local value is very dark (black clothes, for example) or there is very little reflected or ambient light illuminating the area. (underside of the El, for example)  These dark areas can be connected to create a simpler, more impactful design. It can add to the mystery, too.

You don't have to spell out everything. Let the viewer complete the image in his or her own mind.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Little More on the Color Wheel

It seems there's a bit of confusion on the color wheel thing in the previous post. I had a couple of questions asking me about the relationship between chroma and value. I said that in the color wheel I presented, in each slice of the pie, the chroma changes (becomes grayer) but the value remains the same as we travel toward the center.

Sometimes our eyes are tricked into seeing lower chroma as lower (or higher) value, when they're actually the same. I really can't tell you what the scientific reason behind that is. I have noticed a tendency to confuse lighter (value) with brighter (chroma). But confusing the terminology is one thing, to actually perceive a color as lighter or darker than it is something we all experience to one degree or another. 

Squinting is always a good way to simplify what you're seeing - by limiting the amount of light that the eye receives, you limit the amount of information as well, and we see only the simplified picture. If you were to squint at my color wheel, I think you can see that the values do not change within any slice of the pie.

…that is, within reason. I don't claim my pie is perfect, but the aberrations are (should be) within a few percentage points at most.

Below is a good illustration - I converted the color wheel to grayscale in Photoshop to eliminate hue information. All we see now is value.  See what I mean?

I did the same with a couple of color wheels that I found online. Here's one in which the colors move toward black as it moves toward the center.

And another one in which the color moves toward white as it moves toward the center. It's got a hole in the middle, but you can see what I mean. 

In all three examples, all I did was convert the color file to grayscale. There's a huge difference in what information is presented, isn't there?  I really don't find the second and third color wheels helpful. I mean the second one shows what happens to a pure hue if you mix it with black, and the third one shows what happens when you mix it with white. That's not really useful information for a painter. I don't want to know what happens to red if I mix it with black or white. What I want is to be able to show how chroma affects color. I want to show that value and chroma are two different functions.
That changing the chroma of a color doesn't change its value. (Changing the value of a color does affect its chroma. Chew on that one! hint-the second and the third color wheel does show us this fact)

Anyway, I hope these examples clear up the confusion about chroma and value. Remember to squint!