Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Limited Palette Variations

I mentioned a couple of limited palette approaches in this blog before. They are very helpful in keeping color harmonies under control. Because you only have a few tube colors with which to work, you're essentially using the same colors in different amounts to arrive at every new mixture. It's almost impossible not to achieve harmony.

There are many ways to set up a limited palette, obviously. This one is a variation of the earthtone primaries set up. Usually when I do a primaries palette with just earth tones, I use Transparent Oxide Red for my red, Ivory Black for my blue, and Yellow Ochre for my yellow, and White. It's a very muted palette, guaranteeing that your saturation doesn't get out of control even if you tried.

But it does have a very earthy, pre-impressionist look to it. Which isn't a bad thing, but if you're itching for more color, you'll want to replace one or more of the primaries with a more saturated version. For example, if you replace Transparent Oxide Red with a Cad, you end up with the Zorn palette. (He used Vermillion, but the same idea)

Or, you can keep your muted primaries and add a more saturated color just where you want to punch things up a bit, and that's what I did with this sketch. I used the TOR-Ivory Black-Yellow Ochre-White palette to begin the painting and took it as far as I could, then added Ultramarine to my palette, in order to get the blue in the jeans and the little bit brighter greens in the backgrounds, plus the violet in the sofa.

The warm tones didn't need to be pushed, because all the cool tones surrounding them made the small amount of warm tones seem warmer than they actually were.

Small variations go a long way. And keeping my palette limited keeps me from getting confused and overwhelmed by having too many choices.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Weak Winter Sun

Early Morning Paris, 20 x 10 inches, oil on linen

This painting will be available through Anne Irwin Fine Art in June. 
If you're interested in purchasing, please contact the gallery.

Another cityscape. This one is not for my solo show in the fall, but intsead is headed out to Anne Irwin Gallery in Atlanta for a group show in June. I'm sending some Paris-themed city motifs.

The main thing I was after is the depiction of the quality of light. Specifically, I wanted to suggest the weak, cool-ish winter morning light. Here are some of my thought processes behind the decisions I made;

1) Winter light is weak, compared to, say, a hot summer day. In order to convey weak sunlight, the value jump between light and shadow is kept very small. Had I made the shadow areas (I'm talking about the bottom half of the building) darker, I would have ended up with a harsher-feeling light.

2) The big shadow on the building is actually cast by another building across the street. Under harsher light, the cast shadow edge would be much, much sharper. To suggest weak sunlight, its rays perhaps scattered by haze, I kept my edges very soft - in fact there's really no defined edge between the top of half of the building and the bottom half. It's just a gentle gradation. You can see it pretty readily in this b/w image.

3) Even though the value jump is very small and there's no hard edge between light and shadow, I still needed to distinguish light from shadow. To do that, I relied on temperature shifts. The light side leans toward yellow-orange, the shadow side toward red violet.

4)However, neither light nor shadow color is very saturated. They're pretty close to the middle gray (in terms of saturation, not value.) If I were to isolate a small lit area and sampled the color and compared it against a strip of gradation that shows saturation (color picker tool in Photoshop, cropped to a horizontal strip), you can easily see that my yellow sunlit wall is much closer to gray than pure yellow-orange.

Similarly, a sample of shadow color shows that that too, is much closer to gray than fully saturated red-violet.

A part of the reason is just preference. I just like grayed down colors. That is to say, it wouldn't be wrong to make these colors more saturated- you could absolutely make it work. But the fact is, the farther apart they are, the less harmonious they become.

One way to look at color harmony is whether two colors have something in common. The more they have in common, the closer the harmony. Since both of my colors are close to neutral gray, I can say that gray is their big common denominator. I can also say that each color is a slight variation of the neutral gray. Yes, the values differ, but a light gray and medium gray are pretty darn harmonious, it's not really an issue here.

Anyway, so by keeping both colors close to gray, the distance between the two colors (on a color wheel, for example) is relatively close, which means they're likely to be harmonious. And I want the two to be harmonious because after all, I'm describing the same surface, just in slightly different light conditions.

If I pulled the colors farther apart by giving them a greater color shift,  I would find that at some point I'll start to lose continuity and/or the sense of weak winter sun light.

Brighter colors are a lot of fun to manipulate, too, but I thought these subtler colors were more effective in saying what I needed to say.

The appearance of this winter light is helped by other clues such as the hazy gray sky without clear cloud definition, and of course the bare tree in front. If it were a bigger painting, I'd probably have made sure that the figures at the bottom looked like they were in winter clothes, too.

So those are some of the things I thought about in doing this painting. I hope my explanation wasn't too confusing~

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.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Union Street Blues, 24 x 24 inches, oil on linen

This painting is not (yet) available.

I have several cityscapes in the works. Many will be for my yet-to-be-announced solo show in the fall, for which I plan to produce 20+ paintings. So far, I have... two. Haha~

I've mentioned this many times before on my blog, but cityscapes are hard to do!  Mainly because the drawing needs to be accurate, even if you were painting loosely. It's all contextual, of course, but if you want to end up with convincing perspective, then you need to pay attention to every line. 

You do, of course pay attention to every line when you're painting landscapes (of course you do!) but as you know, a crooked building doesn't look nearly as convincing as a crooked tree.

I don't know how other painters approach the motif, but I have to draw out the main lines on the canvas with a ball point pen before I start painting. I use a grid and a straightedge to help me get it right. Here is one of the studies I did before I started on the 24 x 24 canvas. The study is 12 x 12, and if you'll click on it you can see some of the lines I made with the pen quite clearly.

The perspective lines, verticals, and horizontals of the buildings (as well as the grid lines I used to transfer my drawing) are laid down as accurately as possible, where as objects such as cars, trees, street signs, and figures, are just roughly indicated because those are relatively easy to eyeball. You can also see where my clumsy brush deviated from the carefully drawn pen lines.

In the beginning I did much tighter underdrawing for compositions like this, but with experience I began to understand which lines were necessary and which ones could be made up at the painting stage without too much trouble. Obviously this saves time but more importantly, not being a slave to tight underdrawing for every little element, helps to keep the brushwork much, much fresher and expressive.
And that's the main struggle with painting cityscapes: balancing accurate drawing with expressive brushwork.

Here's another study, also 12 x 12.

I highly recommend doing two (or more) studies for a complex painting. Doing one study is great, but having two allows you to analyze what works and what doesn't comparatively. And this is enormously helpful. You can see two different options of handling in many aspects of the comps, and understand why something works or not by referencing the one another.  Often, when I see a difference in value, hue or saturation between the two pieces, I think, "OK, this one works better than that one. How about if I push it farther in that direction?"  If I only had one study, I wouldn't necessarily think to push that element in any direction, and if I did, I wouldn't have a clear idea of which direction it needs to be pushed. 

Of course I can look at a painting and see what's wrong with it, and fix it. But I have two versions, I find I can improve a painting even if I can't readily see anything wrong with either one. 

Time consuming, yes. But worth it!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

It's Feeling Springy~

Sonoma Spring, 9 x 12 inches, oil on linen

This painting is available at Sekula's.  Please contact the gallery for more information.

We had lots of rain last week, and now the sun has come out and so has all the greens around here. The neighbor's magnolia tree is in full bloom, and I'm starting to feel the coming of the allergy season!

I haven't been able to go outside and paint since...Thanksgiving, I believe. I've got plenty on my plate in the studio so it's not like can just drop everything and go painting en plein air.

That's just me making excuses. Sound familiar? If I don't know by now how important it is to go out there and paint nature from direct observation, I never will get any better and I should just quit. 

"I don't have time" is a perfectly valid reason, but then we can't also complain that we're not getting better. Of course we don't get better if we don't put in the time. Can we get good at anything if we don't practice? Even making excuses become easier with practice.

Sometimes I think that I'm not really a plein air painter. I'm more of a studio painter who enjoys painting outside often. I recognize the immense value in the discipline, but it still feels like a chore. I'm not compelled to do it all the time like some of my friends are. When I do get out there, though, I'm always glad I did, and I always learn so much from every painting I do, even the scrapers. Especially the scrapers. 

Can you tell that I'm trying to work up my enthusiasm to go outside? I do have that Sonoma Plein Air Festival coming up in a few months and I'd hate to be unprepared and fall flat on my face. I'll be among my friends who do it all the time, so it would be rather embarrassing if my chops aren't up to par.

There. Fear of embarrassment. That's as good an incentive as any!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

From My Sketchbook

I was finally able to buy a replacement lens for my camera. The new lens isn't as nice as the one I broke, but it's not like I can tell the difference~ I did get one that gives me a little bit of a wider angle which will come in handy when I'm shooting reference stuff. 

So I thought I'd post some new paintings. Then I find that my camera's batteries are out of juice, so they're being recharged right now. 

In the meantime, I'm going to share some recent pages from my sketchbook. As I mentioned in a previous post, I use a typical Moleskine sketchbook and a cheap ballpoint or a regular pencil to do my doodling.  I have been using the Pentel RSVP a lot because I got a whole bunch of them the last time I was at Staples. They're cheap, and gives me quite a bit of control over how a line looks. I tend to prefer ball points over better pens (gel, steel point, etc.) primarily because the "better quality" pens' ink flows too smoothly and the lines all look too even and dark.

Then again, if I sit down on my couch and there's one of those nicer pens within my reach, I don't hesitate to use that even if my preferred ball point is on the table just out of my reach. The difference isn't important enough to get off my ass.

The first shot and this one too, are from figure sessions. I usually do a bunch of these little drawings before I get painting. For a three hour session, I typically spend half an hour to an hour just sketching the figure from different angles. Sometimes I draw just the head, and other times I include more of the figure.

When I'm drawing heads, I'm usually investigating which features ought to be emphasized or even exaggerated while simplifying the whole.

The muscles of the arm are probably studies from one of the Bridgeman's anatomy books. I had to learn all that in art school (the legendary Burne Hogarth was my anatomy teacher. What a character he was!) but I've long forgotten the names of the muscles so recently I've been trying to re-learn them.

I have trouble learning people's names. Muscles are even harder to memorize. But if you know their names, it's easier to draw them because you tend to look for them on the model, and a lot of the times you can't see them unless you're actively looking. If you don't know what you're looking for, chances are, you won't find it.

[If you don't know the name of what you are looking at, the chances are, you may not see it.]

Light and shadow patterns are simply indicated. I note where the edges of the shadows are, and just fill in the shapes. I usually don't do more than that in these sketchbook studies. Unless I'm particularly interested in trying to figure out the planes of the head or something.

Compositions. The first class of my Landscape II class focused on simplifying and designing eucalyptus trees. So I did a bunch of these as I was thinking about what to say to my class. I find drawing is a good way to narrow down my otherwise scattered ideas.

And these are tree sketches from life. I did the one on left sitting in my car while waiting for someone. The one on right from my living room couch. It's my neighbor's tree. This one is drawn with a pencil because my preferred pen was out of reach. Haha~

But you see, you can pretty much draw anywhere, and whenever you have a few minutes. Why not spend those throw-away minutes practicing drawing, designing, composing, studying anatomy, studying gestures, or whatever.

The more you draw, the better you paint. And that's a fact.