Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Friday, March 18, 2011

Q & A

Johan asked me some interesting questions in last post's comments. I thought I'd dedicate a post to answering them, in case other people may be interested. In my experience many people wonder about the same things so why not let everyone in on my trade secrets!?

Actually, I have no trade secrets. In terms of technique,  I don't do anything special - just doing what artists have been doing for hundreds of years. (Excepting the ball point pen, which is probably only a decades-old technique)

Before I get into the Q & A, I want to mention that the pic above is the start of the final canvas that you saw in the last post. I had meant to do a sequential documentation, but as I told you in a previous post, I had a camera related accident and so I couldn't take any pictures after this first one. Sorry about that.

If you click on the image, you can see it enlarged and my ball point pen marks are clearly visible. The grid is done in 2 inch increments here, but sometimes I do bigger grids, sometimes smaller. All depends on how complex the image is.

OK, let's go to questions.

How much time do you spend on your studies compared to your final piece?

If I'm painting en plain air, my so called "studies" are nothing more than thumbnails in my sketchbook. I spend 10 to 20 min. usually.

For a studio painting like this, the time spent on studies varies depending on complexity, but the studies are typically smaller versions abandoned at the point when I feel I've solved the problem at hand. Each of the studies for Union Street  Blues took... I don't know, half a day? Something like that. Sometimes studies take days. But I don't necessarily think of them as studies. More like small paintings. I may even bring them to a fully resolved, finished stages. Then I look at them and say, "hey, that would look great if I did it bigger!" In that case, the smaller painting becomes a study only after the fact.

Sometimes, I do multiple small studies and the combined time for all the studies may be more than the time it takes to execute the final. Which isn't surprising because by the time I get to the final, all the problems are solved and I just have to focus on execution. (It's the problem-solving that's time consuming)

When the light changes too much, do you quit for the day on that particular piece and come back on a day with similar light?

This pertains to plein air works and not studio pieces. Usually I only spend two hours or so if I'm working on location. I work small, (9 x 12 or 12 x 16) so as to be able to finish it in that time. Most of the time, anyway. Any longer and the light changes too much and I'm not even looking at the same painting anymore so keeping at it is impractical.

One thing I'd advise for working outdoors when the sun is moving (even in two hours, shadow patterns can change drastically), is to nail down the drawing, including the shadow patterns, early on, and stick to that design. Don't chase the light and don't chase the changing shadow patterns.

Coming back another time when the light conditions are similar is a great way to work on a larger painting on location. I have only done that a handful of times, myself, but I know plenty of people who spend multiple sessions outside on big canvases.

Do you take a photo so that you can finish your painting in the studio when you were unable to finish it in one session?

Sometimes I take photo references, but more often than not I don't refer to them to finish a painting started outside. Usually I have enough information on the canvas and in my head so if I were to finish a painting in the studio, it's not about adding more information. It's more about tweaking this shape, refining that edge, pushing contrast, simplifying busy areas... orchestrating the painting so it works pictorially. Often, being away from the site gives me a fresh, objective eye to make necessary adjustments and changes to the painting, but I don't need photo references for that–they would actually hinder my efforts to pull it all together by tempting me with information I don't need or want.

What about making an underpainting in paint? Curious to hear why you prefer ball point pen.

I only do the ball point pen thing if I'm doing a cityscape in the studio. I need precise grids and perspective guidelines. As you can see in the image above, I use a straight edge to draw the main verticals, horizontals, and perspective lines. Cars, trees, and other elements are just doodled in freehand.
So the answer to why pen and not paint, is precision. Ball point pen has the added bonus of not getting obliterated when I use oil washes over them, so I can see the lines even with the initial washes loosely laid in, as long as the washes are transparent and not too dark.

I should note that I don't use the pen for an underdrawing if I'm doing a landscape or a figure painting, since I don't need the same level of precision. I just draw in with a brush and a transparent mix of blue and brown. I don't use the pen either, for a cityscape done on location. Those are much more sketchily executed and I like them that way. But when I want accurate drawing involving unforgiving perspective, I rely on more precise prep work using a pen because my brush isn't steady enough to do that freehand.

I hope my answers are satisfactory~  Thanks for the great questions. They made me stop and think about my process anew, which is always a good thing.


  1. Thank you very much Terry, for taking the time to do this.
    This information is so valuable to an aspiring painter like me.
    I have so much to learn still so you've given me some great starting points to experiment.
    Have a nice day,

  2. Love hearing how your thoughts progress through a piece, Terry.

  3. Thank you! This info was so great!

  4. Do you ever have a problem with a grid bleeding through the oil over time or do you seal it. I've had this problem with graphite.

  5. Good information terry thanks for those tips.

  6. Great break down Terry,

    Years ago I used to mark out my paintings with a black Sharpie. But over time I changed this process, the ink was so heavy it would show through the first few coats of paint, which sometimes looked great but on other times I would have to work really hard to obscure it. So these days I use more conventional mark making processes.

  7. Thanks for your comments, as usual.

    Yes, I'm aware that the ink lines may bleed into the painted layers. To alleviate this problem, I usually keep my drawing to just the essential lines, and I try to do it with a light touch. And then, when I'm doing my initial wash stages, I do a lot of aggressive wiping off with a rag or paper towel, losing much of the drawing. I try to make them barely visible while working the canvas with abstract wash / wipe marks.

    That seem to take off most of the potency out of the ink, and I haven't had a problem with ink bleeding in years. I have paintings done in the early nineties and they don't show signs of bleeding. I hope they stay that way - but who knows. They may start showing up in another couple of decades? May be next year? I dunno. OK now you got me worried.