Monday, April 30, 2012

Winters Workshop was a HOOT!


This past weekend I conducted a plein air painting workshop in Winters, Ca. The workshop was specifically about painting streetscapes and solving the problems which are typical of this genre.

Street scenes, store fronts and architecture present challenges like perspective drawing and simplifying and organizing visual clutter. It's hard enough to paint them in the comfort of your own studio, but outside, from direct observation... it takes the challenge to a whole new level. Not to mention dealing with the elements (the sun, the wind, the noise...) and spectators who want to tell you about their aunt who also paints. But in watercolor. She paints flowers mostly, but she did this beautiful portrait of her grandkids one time and won an award for it. Do you use photographs? (Hello, we're painting en plein air right before your eyes!)


No, I'm exaggerating. People in Winters that we encountered were all very nice and pleasant, and they really seemed to enjoy having a bunch of artists paint their town. 

Anyway, but yes, painting the streetscape  is difficult and I did what I thought was the best way to help the students tackle the problems; Simplified value studies. I had them pick out a scene that they wanted to paint, then had them do a two value b/w study, and then a three value b/w study. Really understanding the difference between the two and three value studies was key to organizing the painting's structure, as well as having them realize just how little information you really need to include, in order to convey a sense of place and light.

I know some of them didn't want to do the b/w studies but I hope they saw, by the  time they got to the full color version of the same scene, that indeed the value studies were enormously helpful, not just in designing the a painting, but in learning hot to see and think about a complex subject such as a street scene.  

I certainly saw that the value studies helped, because they produced some very good final paintings which were organized and simplified with intent. Not sure if the students realized this, because just about none of them had ever painted a street scene before, and certainly not en plein air, meaning they had no prior experience against which to compare their results and experiences.

Nevertheless I felt the workshop was very successful. I hope the students had a good time too and they went home with new knowledge~ 




Below are my paintings that I did earlier in the week (before the workshop). I went out to Winters to scope out locations and did a few paintings to familiarize myself with the views and the light.




Finding a good location for workshops is not an easy thing. If I were by myself painting, I could set up just about anywhere. But when you have a group, the requirements for a suitable location is more stringent. We have to have safe parking close by, (preferably free), good views appropriate for the workshop subject matter, good vantage points, open shade under which to stand,  open shade under which to sit/ stand during a lecture/demo, restrooms, some place to do a group crit, lunch spots, and a plan B for adverse weather. 

Our Winters location met nearly all of these requirements, so I really enjoyed conducting a workshop there. I will definitely look into doing it again~



Friday, April 27, 2012

Risks and Rewards




Time and Again, 40 x 30 inches, oil on linen

Like the fire escape painting I posted earlier,  this is another one that went through drastic changes. This too, was exhibited in a solo show a few years back.  It has since come back to me and I've worked on it... a lot.  I wish I had a "before" picture but I can't seem to locate it on my computer. When I find it, I'll be sure to post it because the transformation is pretty significant.

I've pretty much repainted the painting three or four times, on the same canvas surface and each time, it because more abstract and modernist.

This was a fairly good sized canvas and I'd already invested so much time on it that it took some courage to   risk ruining it by working on it further. But once I accepted the fact that its new raison d'ĂȘtre was for me to experiment and learn more about abstraction, it was suddenly ok to push it to the point of destruction, if it came to that.

Consequently, I was able to push it further than anything I've done before. I tried new ways of manipulating the surface like semi-opaque glazing and wiping and scraping and painting over perfectly good passages. To some extent I was able to switch off my representational thinking and put down notes that had nothing to do with expected form or color.

Of course it resulted in plenty of passages which just didn't work at all and all I did was lose the good stuff. But again, I was OK with that. I would just go back in, re-establish what I needed, and attack it from a different perspective.

By and by, the abstraction and representation slowly became integrated rather than two different styles of painting reluctantly coexisting, I gained some understanding as to what this painting needed to be.

All too often the fear of ruining a painting paralyzes us from taking risks. But in order to grow and learn and keep evolving, we have to take risks. Certainly there will be some (ok many) failures which will crush us from time to time, but the alternative is stagnation. Never getting any better is a frightening thought, isn't it?  As the old adage goes, no risk, no glory!

You must have so many paintings sitting around which are never going to see the light of day. Take them and experiment. Allow yourself to fail. You may just find your next breakthrough in the process. It's amazing what you can learn by willing to lose it.

My Notre Dame painting didn't get ruined. It ended up being one of my all time favorites and I learned so much from it (am still learning from it even though I no longer have it) that it was well worth the risk. It raised the bar and defined a new standard for my future paintings, so I have many challenges ahead. Not the least of which is finding new markets for my work.





Sunday, April 22, 2012

Drama, Mystery, and Oomph


Evening Palms, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

I continue to work on my cityscapes, pushing abstraction and trying to make sense of my processes.

This particular painting is a good example of a "single color theme" structure. The driving factor behind color decisions is that I have a subjective color (yellow) predominating everything.

See, it's basically a monochromatic painting, with just a little bit of local colors thrown in. I start off with a transparent brownish underpainting, and then develop an opaque yellow (more or less) monochromatic painting, sticking to the value structure established in the underpainting.

Only after I have a good  opaque single-color (single "hue" might be more accurate) painting, I start to work in the local colors, taking care to keep the harmonies super tight so as to not fragment the color structure. The red tail lights can be a little more saturated because they're their own light source, and not nearly as affected by the yellow light.

Unlike the more colorful high-key impressionist approach, there is very little temperature shifts between light and shadow of the same surface. (except in the extreme foreground)  In fact, this is key. If I push the temperature shifts to the point I can easily discern the hue changes from light to shadow, I no longer have a tonalist painting. Not to say one is better than the other, but it's a completely different system and it's best not to mix the two.

What we do have at our disposal is the ability to use, and get away with, very dark shadows. In a color-filled high key painting, shadows have to be much lighter in value in order to accommodate more saturated color. (They're illuminated by ambient and bounced light, which means they can't be all that dark)

Where saturated colors and color contrasts are missing in a tonal painting, we can use dark values to give the painting some drama, mystery, and oomph.
"Oh but so-and-so does both in one painting", you might say. or "I like to have both drama and bright colors in the shadows".  Great! I'm not stopping ya~



Friday, April 20, 2012

Painting the (Small) Town -a plein air workshop!



Next weekend (April 27 - 29) I am teaching a three day (well, two and a half) workshop in Winters, California. It's a plein air workshop, entitled Painting the (Small) Town.

Winters is a quaint little town that time forgot and is located west of Sacramento, and we are going to be painting street scenes, facades, etc.  It looks like the weather is going to be fabulous, and I'm excited to get out and paint the sights!

And so here's my announcement. I have just ONE opening left for this workshop. If you'd like to join us, the cost is $325 (includes my 80 page full color, fully illustrated book). Please contact Debbie Warrick at the office to sign up; (916) 966-7517.  Don't wait though, because as I said, I only have one spot left!


The painting above is a class demo I did a few weeks ago, and it depicts an alleyway in Winters. I did a little glazing after it was dry, so it wasn't entirely done in one sitting.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Recent Figure Sketches



Between taxes (got hosed), the flu (got beat up), and the kids being home from school for Spring break (got milk?), I really haven't done any real work in the last month.  When I don't paint, I get cranky. But this time I was kind of resigned to my unproductive state (after all, there wasn't much I could do about it) and I managed to not stress out so much. Still, each day that I don't draw or paint, I can feel my chops atrophying so I was eager to get back to the easel.

These sketches I'm posting today are from open sessions and also my figure class, all fairly recent. All are between 30 minutes and an hour, and painted on 9 x 12 sheets of Duralar.



The top two poses are the same. I just moved my easel to a different spot. In our open sessions, we usually have just one long (3 hr) pose, so I just move around to get my short poses. That way everyone else can have his / her three hour pose.





Mylar takes some getting used to, and it force you to paint thicker. Or rather, the painting looks like it's painted thicker than it actually is. Because the surface is smooth, none of the paint is lost to the texture of the surface as it does when painting on canvas.

This also means you can't utilize the texture of the canvas to your advantage. It's just a very different feel. Best to work with materials' characteristics and not fight it.





Duralar  is very similar to mylar or acetate, but made of polyester. Painting on it is also very much like painting on vellum, but unlike vellum, it doesn't tear or buckle so I prefer it.




This here is the initial stage of the sketch, just a brown transparent block in of the darks/shadows. It's the same pose as the painting directly above it, but it's not the same exact painting. I did two from the same spot and stopped this one after the initial block in because I liked the look of it and thought to use it as an example for my students.




Often I leave my sketches unfinished because...well, because they're just sketches. I'm usually studying some specific aspect, (color relationship between light and shadow, for example) and once I got the information I need, there's no point in going further. 



This model has very striking features. As my driving force behind figure drawing or painting is gesture, it is second nature to accentuate, emphasize, or exaggerate gesture in every line. Not just the overall flow of the body, but in small parts (curve of the pronator, the angle of the brow, etc) as well. And when I paint heads, it approaches caricaturing. 

I used to think this wasn't a "proper" way to paint likenesses (after all most caricatures and cartoons we see in the media poke fun at the person's features and are far from dignified) until I came across a Sargent portrait juxtaposed against a photo of the sitter, shot almost from the same angle. I realized just how much Sargent pushed the character of the model's features, sometimes to the point of which can only be described as caricature. And yet, the painting was perfectly dignified, not an ounce of irony or ridicule was detected (at least not by me).

I learned that exaggeration was OK, and that many a great portrait painter were in fact great caricaturists, and that it's possible to paint caricatures without compromising the dignity and humanity of the sitter. The great ones are able to do it, anyway.



The other important "tip" for painting heads I learned in school and I in turn emphasize when I'm teaching, is this; "Don't render the features. Sculpt them."

That is to say, try to think about the process as if you were carving out the structure out of a piece of wood or clay. Don't make it a collection of small "named"parts. (eyes, lips, etc)  We do this carving thing by modulating value, and we go from the general to the specific. Big shapes to the small. It helps to use as few values as possible, and make variations within big shapes only after "the big sculpt" looks like a head.  Sounds like what I did with the cityscape simplification? That's because it's exactly the same. In fact the subject matter is irrelevant. This applies to the general way of seeing and thinking about interpreting the visual world, so it makes no difference whether you're looking at a busy traffic scene or a pretty head.

One of my instructors often said "bake the cake first before you decorate it!" In other words, don't belabor over a perfectly realistic eye before establishing it's structural context. A beautiful eye doesn't look so good if it's an inch below where it should be, or if the head in which it sits is painted like a flounder.




Here's another sketch of the same model. The gestural lines of her pointy features are mimicked (imposed upon the design) in her body / shirt. This is not an accident, but a conscious decision on the design.




Some other sketches pinned to my "wall of studies".  I have good ones as well as bad ones on my wall. Even the bad ones are useful and instructive, as they serve as a reminder of what not to do. They helps me to identify bad habits because after a while, patterns develop and I can see what I'm doing consistently (good and bad) whereas I may not notice them in each individual sketch. 

Recognizing "trends" in my painting is one of the key ways of understanding my own identity.




Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Metamorphosis, Part II


Going Home, 20 x 20 inches, oil on linen
This painting will be available at the Crocker Art Museum's annual auction in May.


First, I just want to mention that the California Art Club's Gold Medal show was awesome! I am glad I went down for the opening reception. The paintings in the show are very high quality and many were nothing short of amazing. Ray Roberts got the top honors this year for his stunning seascape and it was very well deserved. 

I met up with a lot of friends whom I only get to see once in a long while, and got a chance to meet some of the painters whose work I've admired for years (decades!) but have never before met. 

My own painting in this show, unfortunately didn't stand out. People just walked right by it without noticing hahaha~. I mentioned this to my friend who is a veteran of museum shows, and he said that it was because my painting was too quiet. In a big show like this (a "showy show", he called it) a quiet painting, no matter how good, tends to get lost in the mix, unless it's given a really prominent placement and lit perfectly. It's hard to compete with spectacular paintings who are designed to grab attention. 

I think this makes perfect sense. There is strategy involved in shows of this type, and while I would never alter my style or subject matter for a specific show, I might have chosen a painting with a little more oomph. Well there ya go. live and learn. Next year I will apply this lesson to my entry.

On the following day I watched Steve Huston do his demo, which was a huge treat. He makes it look so easy!

OK, so on to the next canvas. The painting above is a recently finished piece that is going to the annual auction at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. I posted about its evolution before; you might find it interesting. You can read it here.

I've only changed a little bit since; pretty much just straightening crooked lines and stuff. Little things, but important. 

I started this thing three years ago and it went through major changes, (countless hours) so when it does sell, I'll probably have made less than minimum wage! 

No matter, I'm happy with how it ended up looking. I'm happy that I was able to take an old painting and successfully apply what I learned in the past year to it. The abstraction, the expression of identity, intent, and conviction are all visible in this piece, as well as evidences of struggle.  That's priceless. 

Two-dimensional geometric abstractions based on building facades is a favorite motif of mine, so you'll see a lot more it from me. I hope it keeps going in this direction. We'll see...