Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Figure Sketches

A couple of sketches from a figure session a few weeks ago. Our sessions are three hours long, and we have a single pose for the duration (with breaks, of course) .  Sometimes I'll do one painting, other times, I do two or three quicker ones. Three hours don't seem like enough time to do a fully resolved painting on a good sized canvas, but most of the time, these sessions are meant for studies and practice. 

While we try to set up the model and the lighting with some care, we have to consider the fact that the set up needs to work for multiple artists, from multiple angles. This really limits the kind of set ups we can do. If I were to do a set up that I wanted, with intention of doing a gallery-bound painting, nobody else in the room will be happy.  So I just take these sessions as opportunities to improve my craft, and not to make paintings that I'm willing to exhibit at a gallery show. Those will have to come from private sessions.

I'm not complaining. I'm differentiating studies from concept-driven, fully resolved work. To that end, I tend to think doing these quicker sketches has a lot of merit. Probably more than spending three hours on a larger canvas trying to do a more finished painting that's never going to leave the studio. When I ask myself, what am I learning from these studies? What do I want to learn from these studies? I always come to the conclusion that spending more time on a sketch than absolutely necessary confuses my intent.

There are times when my intent is to explore different value structures - light on dark, dark on light, etc. and I keep repainting on top of what I've done, and that can take more than three hours. But I'm not spending the time tediously and mindlessly rendering the forms – I'm still on track as far as my intent goes.  The same is true when I'm exploring processes of layering. I call that "overworking on purpose". But see, I have a purpose. It's when I deviate from my original intent (what am I studying with this sketch?) and start overworking without purpose...that's when three hours become way too much time.

The set up doesn't have to be perfect or even all that interesting for practice and studies. In fact, I think it's extremely good exercise to try and make something interesting from an uninspiring set up. I can always learn something from such an exercise. I can always work to improve my drawing, try different color strategies and brushwork. I'd rather work with an uninspiring set up, than not at all.

But I digress. These sketches aren't from an uninspiring set up. On the contrary, I thought it had great potential for a fully resolved painting later on. My intent was to explore value structures first of all –not to neglect other important things, of course. If I decide to do a "finish" later, I'll hire the model for a private session and take as many hours as necessary to do it right.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Analog Day

Urban Rain, 20 x 24 inches, oil on canvas

It has been raining for several days now, and I'm feeling a little cooped up. On the other hand, since we're not traveling this Christmas I feel relaxed and lazy. Oh sure there's plenty on my to-do list and even if there weren't, I should be painting my hours away. Instead, I'm reading sci-fi books and roasting chestnuts. 

Yesterday I declared an "analog day",  meaning no computer, no tv, no dvd, no video games, and no cellphone. No digital media, basically. We try to do this each Sunday and it's wonderful. It was really difficult the first couple of times–it made us painfully aware just how much of our daily lives is dependent on digital media. We don't think twice about waking up in the morning and sitting down in front of the computer with a hot cup of coffee, to check email, Facebook, blogs, and whatever else our lives are connected to. And when that's taken away, we have to reevaluate not only how to enjoy our cup of morning coffee, but just how entrenched our lives are in this continuous flow of information. All day we had to fight the urge to check email, to see what our family and friends are doing, and the latest news in world affairs or hollywood or whatever.  We felt disconnected, and had a hard time figuring out what to do with our time. Chores get done, yes, but what to do in-between chores?

Feeling completely disconnected is disorienting, to say the least. And we're not even out camping or anything. The devices are sitting right there, tempting us every second. Very difficult. But after a while, we began to relax. Strange thing, I started to remember the way things were before all this technology came into our lives and how great it was when life was simpler. Things I hadn't thought of in decades started to appear in my mind. Time slowed down, and we just enjoyed ourselves doing "analog" things like playing board games. Writing letters. Baking apple pie. Staring at the rain. Oh yes, and reading books and roasting chestnuts. 

There is a lot more to it than just being made aware of our digital addiction, of course. Whether we like it or not, it goes much deeper than that– I had to rethink what is actually important in our lives. But I'm not going to weigh down this blog with heavy stuff like that. Don't worry.

But everyone ought to try an analog day once in a while, if not regularly. I think you'll find it challenging, annoying, disorienting, but ultimately, eye-opening if not rewarding.  

Next Sunday is the day after Christmas, so it's going to be pretty easy. It's a lazy day anyway, you know what I mean?  But I'm adding one more device to the list of devices that can't be used on my analog day; the microwave oven!  I love to cook and most things, I do it old school anyway so I don't think the microwave makes much of a difference, but I want to see if this is really true. The only way to find out is to consciously monitor my use. My next analog day should prove interesting.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

San Francisco

Up To The Blue, 14 x 21 inches, oil on canvas

San Francisco is really difficult to paint. Technically, it's not any more difficult than any other city, or any other subject, for that matter. (OK, it's a little easier to fake a tree than to fake a building)  What makes SF so difficult, at least for me, is that it's been done so many times by so many great painters, and these iconic views of steep hills, while irresistible, have become predictable. 

How do you differentiate your view from the rest, especially when they're all painting the same thing?  This is a question I've struggled with for years. I've tried to look for unusual angles and croppings, but while those did result in unexpected views, I felt they weren't really me. They looked contrived because they were. They can each be good paintings, but because I was forcing myself to be different for the sake of being different, it meant that they really weren't grounded in my identity. And inevitably, I would burn out after two or three paintings.

Eventually I've come to accept the notion that what differentiates my SF cityscapes aren't found in unusual views or clever cropping. My identity is found in my choice of colors, how I put them down, what I chose to edit out, how I structure values in designing a picture. The fundamental things that, when combined, result in a moodiness that feels like something from my own past. And the ordinariness of view is an essential ingredient precisely because I feel compelled to express the subtler aspects of my visual experience, which would be overwhelmed and overshadowed by the unusual, the contrived, the spectacular, the awesome. 

Don't get me wrong–I'm not saying I strive to be predictable. I'm saying we see the subtle things more readily when our senses are not dazzled by the unusual. And I have this suspicion that somewhere in those subtle aspects of the ordinary is where I'll find my identity.

Took me 20 years to realize that, and I'm still looking for it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pink and Purple

This one is more colorful than my usual work. I think this is because I was compensating for low light in the classroom. You see, I did this as a demo and I kept thinking the painting was too dark and was struggling to lighten things up. When I took it home and looked at it under my studio light, it wasn't dark at all. It's interesting how a painting  completely changes under different lighting situations.

The demo was about atmosphere. Specifically, I wanted to emphasize seeing the landscape in layers and logically and systematically manipulating the value range and color to achieve a sense of distance. For example, there are several layers of tree masses in this picture, and as we move from front to back, the value range diminishes. The darker values become lighter dramatically. The lighter values not as much. At the farthest distance visible, the light and dark values become one, and I only have one value to describe masses of trees waaaay back in the distance. In fact, they become one with the purple of the sky. So can we say that all values approach that of the sky at the horizon as we move toward it? I think so.

If you look at the color of the grass, it's apparent that that too, approaches the color of the sky at the horizon as we move toward it. Or should I say, it's apparent that I decided to paint it that way, and it seems to work. The same with the color in the trees, but it's less apparent because there are more color variations in the front trees which give it a sense of complexity (but it really isn't complicated).

Beyond a certain distance, the color of the atmosphere dominates and the local colors of "things" become less and less relevant.

The trick... well, it's not a trick really, but the thing to keep in mind is that the changes in value range and colors are a result of mixing colors logically and systematically. It really helps to see the landscape as layers, so that each layer can be viewed as another, definite "step" for which the colors need to be adjusted on the palette.  A good tip is to keep your palette organized - use the existing mixture (of a foreground green, for example) to mix the next "step", and use that to mix the following one, and so on. But don't obliterate the previous puddles each time you make the new step.

Your trail of puddles might look like this:

Keeping each puddle intact will allow you to have a sequence of closely related mixtures, the relationships of which are readily visible, even if they're subtle.

Obviously, doing it this way requires that you keep your thinking organized, and that's exactly my point. Without organization, there's no logic. Without logic, you're just guessing at each mixture. Unless of course you're so adept at mixing colors that you can effortlessly mix whatever color you need by responding to what's on the canvas. Sorolla is said to have painted "like a pig eats". But you can bet that he wasn't guessing at anything.

For the rest of us, slowing down and really thinking about each color we mix can go a loooong way.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


The neighbors have put up Christmas lights. I guess I can't put it off much longer. I must put down the brush and go get a tree! Hey, it's for the kids, ok? Not that I'm the Grinch or anything, but if it were just me, a Festivus pole would be just as good.

Here's a painting I did last week. Sonia was our model, and she was very petite and elf-like. And, to my delight, she possessed this natural grace in her movements which came through in her poses. Subtle, but undeniably lyrical.

So I just had her sit as if she were waiting for something, and she gave us this slight lean that I really liked.  She thought she could hold it, so we went to work.

On this painting, I started by massing in the figure in a very loose wash just to see how the silhouette would fit in the rectangle. Satisfied, I wiped it to tone the canvas, then started over by drawing the figure with a brush.

After I got the main shapes placed, I continued by blocking in the dark areas.

Switching to opaque colors, I blocked in the skin tones in two values. The shadow side of the skin, at this stage has two variations; a more violet color in the face, and a greenish ochre in the arm. Very close though.

Here I've blocked in the rest of the figure with opaques. I do like the look of this stage, but I had other things in mind that I wanted to try so I didn't stop.

I filled in the background with a dark color, and started to refine some edges and shapes. Still very brushy at this point. This shot was at the end of the session. I took it home and worked on it further.

The main thing I was interested in was to resist making this into a portrait. I didn't want her to be a specific individual,  but a more general representation of a young woman. I worked on playing down her identity by simplifying the eyes into just simple shadow shapes. The difference between defining the eyes and hiding them is like night and day. Individual vs. Everywoman. Identity vs. anonymity. A portrait of a stranger (a viewer can't necessarily relate) vs. an archetype (expression of the universal).  There really is a lot to be explored in how a portrait-type painting is handled.  I remember when I was a student Skip Liepke came to give a lecture and he said something to the effect of "the most universal is also the most personal". That always stuck with me, and also explained why I am more drawn to the generalized treatment of the figure than your typical portraiture, which is about expression of the sitter's identity and all that encompasses.

The great ones (Rembrandt, Velasquez, Sargent, etc.) could do both in one painting. They could express the universal in portraits of specific individuals. They could show not only likeness, but temperament, personality, intelligence, grace, emotional state of the subject, and in doing so, the viewer is made aware of something larger and transcendent; the human condition that resonates with all people, and not just the sitter's family and friends. That's why those guys' works stand the test of time.  It's a lot more than technique. That's for sure. (I'd settle for a little bit of their technique, though)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


We Are Enveloped and Drenched In The Marvelous..., 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen

...But We Do Not See, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen

"We are enveloped and drenched in the marvelous, but we do not see" is a quote by Baudelaire. It's also the opening line of a review of my first West Coast solo show, an exhibition of cityscapes and architectural themes, which took place some thirteen years ago at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery in San Francisco. 

It was written by Mr. William Whitney, an art historian and former executive director at the California Historical Society. He said some very nice things about my work, and for a young upstart like me, his words were a tremendous confidence booster.  

But as the years passed and I became older and more experienced (and hopefully, a little wiser) I began to feel that his generous praise of my work was... well, too generous. Try as I might, it became increasingly apparent that I couldn't live up to it. Eventually, I gave up painting cityscapes and turned to landscape painting, hoping to learn new things in a completely different context. 

Well I learned a lot, and still am learning every day. In the past few years, I have been attempting to return to the cityscape by applying what I learned from landscape painting to my cityscapes. The quality of light, color, edges, and abstraction are high on the list of things which make my new city paintings different –and much, much closer to my own identity. 

The two small paintings I'm posting today are my latest efforts, and I really like them. I'm encouraged that this time around, I have a fighting chance of living up to Mr. Whitney's original review. 

Terry Miura is One Who Sees

"We are enveloped and drenched in the marvelous, but we do not see," Baudelaire has said. The artist Terry Miura sees, and he achieves one of the prime functions of the artist by enabling us to see the familiar in a new light. 

Miura endows arches, pediments, columns and doorways with a kind of timeless poetic nostalgia and uses their abstract potential to achieve compositions that compel our attention. The nostalgic mood is heightened by understated muted color and by the lone passerby, alienated and oblivious of the scene and unaware that he is being observed -- another who does not see. 

Miura's original vision is enhanced by a thorough mastery of his craft. These paintings live in the viewer's mind -- a quality not often found in the frenetic world of contemporary art.

-- William W. Whitney 

If you would like to see these in person, they are at Sekula's in Sacramento. Please go check 'em out if you're in the area!


Monday, December 6, 2010

Ambient Light

The holiday craziness is starting to heat up! I am trying to stay ahead and sane this year. Although my resistance is probably futile, I have to try!

Here are two very similar paintings. One of these was done as a class demo on brushwork and edges, and the other one is a variation I did at home. It doesn't matter which is which - I just wanted to share with you something I touched on during the demo.

Ambient light. When painting a scene like this where the sun is not out, the sky becomes the primary light source.  And because the light source is the entire sky, as opposed to the intense directional light that the sun provides,  the effect is much softer and often much cooler.  Although not necessarily a rule carved in stone, the value jump between light and shadow of a common surface tends to be much closer, and the cast shadows are not clearly defined.

And here's a color strategy for mixing the light side of the foliage (or barn, grass, whatever) : I first established the dark side of the tree - a very low chroma green, then I painted the sky.  As you can see from the two paintings, the main difference is the sky color - it's whatever dusky color you want.

Then I mixed the sky color into the shadow-side-of-the-foliage color to get the light side of the foliage.  Since the sky is the light source, and it has color, it affects whatever it's illuminating. You can see that the bottom painting has a cooler foliage color as a result.

Here's the disclaimer. Don't take this as a formula! It's a good starting point, but depending on the color you start with (the dark side of the tree) and your choice of the sky color, you may end up with a color that is much grayer than you want, so always expect to make adjustments.

And another thing. This doesn't really work in direct sunlight situations, because the sky is a secondary light source, and the color of the sunlight trumps it. However, you might try it to illuminate the shadows that face the sky~  (Ever seen blue shadows? Uh huh.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Reminiscence, 24 x 36 inches, oil on linen

Here is a recent commission painting.  Sometimes commissions are really hard to do. Having to create a painting to someone else's satisfaction - the client may or may not have the same aesthetic or even a sense of what works and what doesn't - is not what you'd call a walk in the park. I stopped doing illustration work for that very reason.

This painting, however, painted itself! It helped that I had done several studies and variations of this facade over the years, and that my client gave me full freedom to do whatever I wanted. As complex as the details are, it was a real pleasure to work on them. I wish all commissions were like this~

A detail shot of the sculpture. Five years ago, I probably would have painted more detail in the face, defining each feature more clearly. I'm particularly happy that I was able to resist the urge to differentiate the hair (the funky Catholic monk do) from the face.  Simplification like that doesn't happen intuitively, but it's a result of a conscious decision to say more with less. Lots of trial and error and leaps of faith.

 Decorative arch detail. The reflected light is lighter than the dark underpainting, and it is opaque as opposed to the transparency of the dark notes underneath.  I think of the dark notes as shadow - defined as "state of not being lit" - therefore it makes sense for them to be transparent (recedes when juxtaposed against opaque notes)  and being underneath the lighter notes of the reflected light.

Reflected light is painted opaque because it's light (not direct light, but still light) and I think of it as illuminating the areas which, without its presence are the transparent, dark, receding shadow areas represented by the underpainting.

 To be sure, dark receding spaces and reflected lights can be painted opaquely or transparently - Any value can be achieved independent of it's opacity - but doing it this way make logical sense to me, and without logic, I can't do anything. You may be able to, but I can't.

Figures emerging from the darkness. The values are subdued (white blouse is nowhere near white) and edges are soft or lost, so that these figures don't become "stars" of the painting. The painting isn't about these people. They're bit players in the story, so they need to be treated that way.

A side note: I used a photo reference for the building, but the lighting is altered a little bit. The figures are made up.