Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Is That Enough?

I was trying to organize my database I found I had a photo of the painting at an earlier stage. I thought it illustrated what I was talking about yesterday–in particular the notion of "how simple is enough?"- pretty clearly.

As you can see, at this stage I have the canvas already covered, and the structure of the painting is already in place. The paint is pretty thin still. The cars on the left are painted with fewer values, and with less detail.  They look like cars, but is that enough? I decided no, they needed a little bit more information as they're in the foreground.

The tree mass in the middle left also got an extra value. It's still very simple – just a few strokes of light– but I think the volume created by it adds to the believability of the midground area without distracting from the good stuff.

This is a close-up of the figures. As you can see, they're just blobs. Barely recognizable silhouettes on their own, but plenty recognizable in context. I didn't think they needed any more detail than that. What gives them a little bit of a sense of complexity is the second, lighter value on the figure on the left. It doesn't define anything in particular, but it helps to tie the figures to the ground, and gives them a perceived sense of reflected light.  Similarly, the cast shadow on the ground behind the figures to the left has a slightly lighter value laid on top, making that part of the shadow lighter than the corresponding part on the right of the figures. That lighter note represents the shadow being affected by ambient light of the sky.  It's darker to the right because closer to the buildings the ambient light decreases.

That seems like a nitpicky detail for something so far in the distance, but the purpose of that is not to add more detail per se, but to add perception of complexity. Had I painted those shapes flat with a single color/value, they would just look like paper cut outs.

The variety of edges and textures (some reliant on canvas texture, some on paint thickness and application) does the same thing. Decisions for these are made not so much with "rules of realism" as with the intent to be expressive with the brush and to integrate one shape with another.

I think my work is getting more and more abstract. I'm happy about that.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How About Blue?

Urban Blues, 12 x 24 inches, oil on linen

In back-lit situations, there are several characteristics that I really like, and I try to exploit these to my advantage. I mentioned them briefly in the previous post, but let's see if we can dig a little deeper. The most obvious of these is that you are looking at the shadow side of things. We might get a strong rim light, or at least a clear light-shadow pattern that describe the construct of the thing –a car, for example. And because we don't see any detail, we are forced to simplify the car into two simple values. One for light, and one for shadow. It's tempting to add more detail, but if we stop and take a look at the two-value car in the context of the painting, it may occur to us that it already looks like a car without any detail. If we defined the wheels or the fender, will it help make our statement more clearly? Or will it just
give us a more detailed car, and lessen the impact of our statement. Do we have a good reason for the car being more than merely identifiable as a car? Maybe the simplest depiction possible is enough? May be, May be not. It depends on the context.

And often, we get a silhouette and nothing else. If the silhouette has a strong identifiable shape say, a pedestrian walking, we don't even need a light-and-shadow pattern on the form itself for it to be identifiable. That's even simpler than a two-value construct, right? Because I'm trying to say more with less, this is an enormously handy device.

If you look at the painting at the top, you might say "but you're painting the cars with more than one or two values!" And that would be true, but only in the foreground. I do paint them all with one or two values at first. Then, I ask myself is that enough? Sometimes the answer is yes. Other times, especially when they are closer, I need a little more. I add a third value. Or a hint of a headlight or something. Each time, I ask, is that enough? More often than not, I don't know that it's enough till I've gone too far, and then I have to take stuff out. The goal is to say it with as few values and details and brushstrokes as possible. Obviously what is enough depends on what I'm trying to say with that element.

Another thing I love about back-lit views is the heavy atmospheric effect. The sun has to shine through all that "stuff" in the air, emphasizing the veil effect. It contributes to a sense of mystery, depth, and again, simplicity.

The color of the light through the atmosphere dominates everything else, so the local color becomes nearly irrelevant. What does that mean? That means I can choose whatever color I want as a theme, and not worry about all the disharmonious city colors fragmenting the picture. Yesterday's painting was done predominantly in yellow, and today's is done in blue. The choice is entirely subjective.

And when the color structure is tonal like that, I can use really dark colors without them looking out of place. I don't know why you can get away with really dark shadows in a tonal painting but not in more naturalistic palettes, but that's the way it is. May be it's just me. I dunno.

So a lot of advantages to painting back-lit. All contributing to simpler, moodier, more atmospheric statements. And that is right up my alley, don'tchaknow.

Before I close today's post, I thought I'd share a little fix on yesterday's post. After I saw the image on the blog, I noticed a design no-no. The two cars have angles that come together in a confusing tangent. I don't know why I didn't notice it before. Sometimes it takes shrinking the image to take in the whole, and only then I notice mistakes like that.

So I just moved the profile car down a little bit. Much better.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Something Clicked

I think I'm on to something. According to my test (see previous post) if after a couple of paintings I get bored of my newfound voice, it's not really my voice. I was just bedazzled by a discovery which turned out to be something cosmetic. Not so profound as to finding myself.

Not that I think I can just find myself that easily. Nor do I think it'll take less than a lifetime. But I think I've found a piece of the puzzle. It feels like a corner piece, even. I applied the test, and not only did I not get bored after two or three paintings, but I just keep getting sucked into it further and further. I have now done over thirty paintings pursuing this path, and it feels like the paintings just paint themselves. I'm just holding onto the brush for dear life!

The ride is bumpy, to be sure, and of the thirty, many ended up in the trash but even those felt good to do. I can't clearly identify what "it" is that I found, but I can feel it in my bones.

You see, over the years and in the course of doing thousands of paintings, I began to notice certain patterns in my tendencies. The things I like and don't like. I became more aware of what I respond to, both in my own paintings and in other people's. And also in what I see out there in the course of a normal day. When I took stock of these likes and dislikes, it became more clear to me why I thought some good paintings failed, and why some others, while not so good, resonated with me.

Here are some of my likes:
- a sense of mystery.
- atmosphere.
- flat shapes.
- anonymity.
- moodiness.
- quiet.
- subtlety.
- obscurity.
- expressive, yet controlled brushwork.
- muted colors.
- close harmonies.
- ordinary things and views.
- evokative qualities.

And here are some things that I either don't like, or I like in other people's work but not in mine:
- slick realism.
- lots of detail.
- bright colors.
- compositions that rely on, or dominated by complex perspectives.
- sentimentalism.
- the spectacular in nature. Like fiery sunsets. or the Grand Canyon.
- anomalies in nature.
- too much narrative.
- portraiture.
- still life.
- "pretty" things.
- subjects that are more or less irrelevant to my daily life. Boats, for example.

The "dislikes" are a lot trickier to identify, because most of these things I actually do like when I see them done well by other people. Sometimes I might even love them so much that I start fooling myself into believing I would like them in my own paintings too.

There are more on the lists, and they become more specific to technique, or mood, or color, or what have you. The thing is, I've known my tendencies for a long time but I never listened to myself. I would see a beautiful painting done by a friend, and think, "wow! that is so freakin' cool! I want to do that!!"  And I would allow myself to be influenced. That stuff doesn't stand my test, of course, but I would come out of it more confused than when I started.

So what happened? It wasn't a sudden epiphany or anything, but earlier this year, I had an occasion to paint some people crossing the street in front of cars. This was done en plein air, which means moving targets. Basically memory painting on the spot is what it was. Which is not something new for me. What was different this time, was the view I was painting was back-lit. When looking into the sun, everything becomes simplified because you really can't see any detail. The light and shadow separation is pretty much all you get. You might get some local colors in the foreground, but remember, my foreground elements were moving so I didn't get a chance to overwork them, neither in detail or color.

What I had before me was devoid of detail, very atmospheric, almost completely tonal. Which meant I had no bright colors. Very moody, and because I was painting moving targets, my brushwork was about movement, not about the pedestrians or cars. There's a huge difference between painting "things" like people, and painting visually abstract notions like "motion". I end up having pedestrians on my canvas but I wasn't painting them. I was painting "motion".

I realized that here was a subject matter and set up that forced me to emphasize all that I liked, and none that I disliked. Ping! Lightbulb!

I went home, and started to experiment in the studio, painting backlit cityscapes and comparing them to the same scenes painted front or side lit. And it became more and more clear that when I painted a back lit view, I would paint more abstractly (because I couldn't see anything literal beyond silhouettes), whereas front or side lit views would put my mind in a more literal gear.

OK, this is good, I thought. Lots of potential. Let's try a few more and see if there's more to it...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Breakthrough!?

Moving Silhouettes, 12 x 21 inches, oil on linen

As we keep practicing and getting better at this painting thing, we have little breakthroughs from time to time. In the beginning, it's all about technique – I remember when I had an a-ha! moment about color harmony, and another about paint viscosity. These little breakthroughs are what keeps us hooked. We learn new things, and the more we learn, the more obvious it becomes that there's so much we don't yet know. And yet, somehow we know that if we keep trying,  we'll get there - where ever "there" is. If we didn't have that conviction what's the point in trying? I'm not happy just making one so-so painting after another. Are you? 

But as you know, the climb ain't easy. The more technical knowledge you amass, the harder it becomes. The breakthroughs start happening much less frequently, and the plateaus become higher and farther apart. It's not uncommon to start thinking that we'll never get any better. We've peaked. This is as good as we'll get. The slump lasts longer, the despair darker. Sound familiar?

You know what I think? I think it's because– partially, anyway– as our technique improves, the breakthroughs become less about the technique and more about expression. Finding our voice. Coming to terms with our identity. Now that's pretty heavy stuff. I mean, anyone can paint a tree. How do you make it your tree? Am I talking about style? In a way, yes. but see, here's the problem. Consciously created style is, by definition, contrived. I know that's absolutely true in my case. In searching for my own voice, I've tried –and found– my "style" over and over again, only to realize each time, it was contrived and wasn't really my identity. Just another schtick, if you will.

I've come to recognize my tendency to get excited about some little discovery or another and convincing myself that this is it! this is my style! It's easy to delude yourself when that particular breakthrough happens in a successful painting. You know what I mean? But invariably, after two or three paintings in that "style", I get bored. The novelty is gone. It wasn't my style, after all. Depressing. 

If I'm lucky, I will have gained some kernel of knowledge or a piece of the puzzle in my pursuit of my identity - or the recognition thereof. But it's all so fragmented and vague. It's not quantifiable. I can't even articulate it. It kinda sucks.

But the good news is, that I have a test for determining whether a new discovery is at least a part of my true identity or not. If I get bored of it after two paintings, then the answer is no. Accept the defeat, and move on. At least I know what I'm not. The process of elimination continues.

So for the past twenty years or more, I've been searching, discovering, testing, and always getting a negative result. It has never stuck.

That is, until now.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Blue (violet) and Red (orange)

Between Blue and Red, 14 x 14, oil on linen

It's typical for me to assign myself a task, a goal, if you will, for a study based on a previous effort. During or after I do a painting, there are often questions like, "what if I made it this color, or if I made that part simpler?"  If I keep most other things similar, the comparison between the new and the previous pieces can be very instructional, much more so than if I kept changing things on one canvas, in which case I only have my memory to compare against. I suppose I can take photos along the way, but it's still nice to set two variations physically side by side and scrutinize them together.

So for this particular painting, I wanted to use a very similar palette to the previous week's painting (last post) but push the saturation of the colors a little farther, blasting a color field in a non-focal area. I knew it would be a more graphic solution than strictly representational, and that's what I was going for.

Compared to the last week's painting, the new one obvious has more impact. It's much louder, is the impression I get. It is more appropriate for this particular model, but that's beside the point. (Because I'm not interested in portraying her likeness or personality) 

I like the boldness, but I did lose that quiet, airy quality of the last piece. To be expected of course, you can't be both quiet and loud!

So for the next piece, I wanted to go back to a quieter, airy mood. I decided to use much less blue and push the whole thing toward red, and keep the overall values in the higher register (light and airy, remember?) 

Sitting Pretty, 18 x 18, oil on linen

The model was sitting on the same sofa, but I made it more bed-like. She was young and pretty, which posed a challenge because the painting kept wanting to be about a pretty girl. I kept having to downplay the facial features because every time I added this detail or that, it accentuated her identity. I'm more interested in painting Everywoman, and not a specific girl.  Easy to do when the painting is small and I can't put facial features in there if I wanted to, but this was a larger canvas (her head is about 4 inches on the canvas) and it's hard to leave empty a shape that size. 

I'm happy with the overall mood, though. I think I can still go lighter and airier. Maybe if I keep pushing that I'll end up with a white Rothko painting!

Her hand needs a little work still. It looks unnatural, and carries too much intent, only that intent is unknown and isn't part of the concept. Its gesture is too loud and irrelevant. I'll have to try a few different positions and see what works. 

Starting with the next post, I'll be sharing my NEW cityscapes. I'm really excited about this new direction, and I'm eager to have them see the light of day!

Stay tuned.

Friday, July 8, 2011

More on the Figure Sketch

Upon seeing my last post, a couple of students asked me what I actually did on some of the stages, as they couldn't tell from the small video. Also, they wanted to know why I did what I did in certain stages because it didn't quite make sense to them. Admittedly my "messy method" is sometimes a little confusing to students who're looking for a clear, prescribed process because the sequence doesn't really go from point A to point B in a straight line. It strays and meanders, depending on how I'm responding to the problem at hand.

So in an effort to clarify my intentions at each stage, here's the step by step, with running commentary.

I started with a very general wash, trying to get the figure placed on the canvas. The figure is placed in such a way that I have more foreground than background because I really had nothing to say about the background and I liked the psychological distance between me and the model, provided by the near end of the sofa and its emptiness.

Here's my view of the model. Unless I'm doing a portrait, which is not often, I like set up farther back in the room so that 1) I'm not tempted by little teeny detail, 2) I get less of a fish-eye distortion because at a distance I don't have to move my head up and down to see the whole figure.

On top of the wash, I started drawing with a small brush. Sometimes I draw first then put the wash in. Other times, I wash in first. I generally wash-then-draw when I want the painting to be looser.

Here I'm pushing the darks to separate light from shadow. The colors look pretty red (brown) but that wasn't intentional. I use a mix of Transparent Red Oxide, Ultramarine, and solvent, and I just happened to have more red oxide in the mix. Had I gone more blue, it would have been fine, too.

With a lighter, opaque (has white in the mix) color, I roughly blocked in the lights. It's sort of pinkish, because at this point (actually, from the get-go) I'd already had in my mind to do this painting in a blue-violet atmospheric tonalist sort of structure. And the pink is just that violet pushed toward warm, toward red-violet. Warm light, cool shadow. 

Blocked in the shadow areas, roughly, in dark violet. Just the couch, head (hair) and the dress - I wanted to separate the skin from the darker fabrics.

The shadow side of the skin is blocked in (see arm) with a lighter violet. Now the pink I used a few stages back makes more sense, no? 

Defining the sofa by cleaning up the shape of the lights on it. Doesn't take much, does it.

Background is blocked in with what I thought was a very light blue violet. Obviously it wasn't very light, so I'll be lightening that later, but now I have a better sense of the color context.

The figure gets better definition. Keepin' it all simple. Careful to define the front plane of the head with shape, plus the nose is indicated. I don't need any more information in the face than that.

Now I'm pushing the lights further. I also brought the background violet down into the couch behind the figure, and also into the figure itself near the head and shoulder area.

Lightened the background a little bit, plus the far end of the sofa got some reflected light pulled into it. I decided to shorten her legs a little bit because the horizontal lines in that area seemed to have too much impact.

Added the orange of the scarf as a color accent. I wasn't sure if I needed a color accent, but decided to try and see if it worked - how else will I know, right? It seemed to work OK.

Encouraged by the orange color note, I pushed the blue violets in the shadows, and lightened the background even more. In the background, I mixed in a small bit of cool yellow to give the painting a more of a hue range. It still feels tonal, but not as monochromatic. Small refinements on shapes and edges, like the light on her left knee. The angle of the bottom edge is changed to reflect the top leg casting a shadow across the bottom, so that the left leg tucks under better. 

I debated whether to paint the shadow side of the legs but decided against it, leaving the transparent brushstrokes as they were. The variety of surfaces it provided seemed to trump a nice opaque reflected light in that area. Probably would have worked either way, but that's one place where I can't "do it just to see what it looks like" because once you go opaque, you can't really go back to that fresh transparent stroke-y look.

That's it.  I liked the color scheme very much, and I wondered how it would look if I pushed the saturation further in certain areas. So I did another painting with that in mind, (different session, different model) and I will post that one next so you can see the difference.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Figure Sketch

click on the image to see the video a little bit larger.

During the figure session yesterday, I remembered (wow!) to take snapshots of the work in progress. I thought it would be neat to put it all together in a little slide show. It certainly does open my eyes when I see the sequence after the fact.

I haven't edited video in years, and it turns out the current version of iMovie is nothing like what I was using three years ago, and I couldn't make heads or tails out of it. My teenage son is the expert now, but being a teenager, he's got no time!

So I resorted to doing the dumbed down version in iPhoto, which is still pretty cool given the fact that my knowledge of technology is quickly becoming obsolete.

Anyway, a little bit about the painting; the sketch is done on a piece of linen taped to a board, and it's about 12 x 14 or thereabouts.

The painting took probably 1.5hrs or 2hrs at most, including the time I took to do thumbnails.

The photos were taken with my iPhone under classroom lighting conditions, which is my way of saying cut me some slack on the quality of the photos!

The method you see in this clip is what I call my "messy method", where I go in with very vague, abstract, loose washes and try to find shapes in them, gradually tightening up as I go. This is in contrast to my "orderly method", where I do a more careful drawing first.

I tend to go with the "messy method" when I want to focus on the abstract things like gesture, atmosphere, and mood. I use the "orderly method" when specific types of information has more importance. For example, the likeness of the model for a portrait treatment, or if I were painting a landscape feature that needs to be recognizable, or an identifiable architecture or a car model.

This painting was not about the identity of the model, so a tight drawing in the beginning wasn't necessary. I was more interested in the gesture and abstraction, so the "messy method" suited me well.

I hope you enjoy the little slide show!