Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Monday, June 25, 2012

Abstracting the Landscape

Country Road, 18 x 24 inches, oil on linen

This is a studio painting. At 18 x 24, it's a pretty good size for me. This painting is conceived entirely out of my head. No references. I had an idea about composition and it started out as a very abstract pattern into which I imposed recognizable shapes and perspective. 

If you consider the fact that there's really only two buildings that need any attention to linear perspective (the rest are sort of flat-on elevation view) and they're simple one-point perspective, the logistics of creating a convincing environment, in this case, wasn't as complicated as it might seem. 

I mean the trees are just blobs, and the cast shadows all go in the same direction. The rows of crops in the foreground, along with the road, share a single vanishing point. It's not difficult to make straight lines all go to the same point, is it? 

The difficulty is designing in the abstract. It's not about the recognizable things, but creating interesting abstract patterns that don't betray believable space. Even though I had worked it out on paper with a bunch of sketches, I still needed to spend hours fine tuning it. 

A lot of it had to do with my trying to push abstraction and surface work. I have been able to go much further with abstraction in my cityscapes and figures than in my landscapes. I have a real hard time leaving the traditional realm when it comes to painting the landscape. I think it's because I feel comfortable in the familiar territory and I do feel more confidence that I could pull off a pretty good, if conventional, landscape painting. I'm not willing to stay there, but stepping out of that comfort zone is damned hard.

It may not look like it, but this painting has a lot more going on in the way of abstraction than my typical landscapes. It's mostly in the flat shapes of the trees and the fields. I'm finding inspiration from woodblock prints and serigraphs, where flat shapes are really flat but has a lot of textural activity that has nothing to do with the thing its depicting. Does that make sense?

I'll have to do many more of these before I feel like I own the language, but I think I have a good start. This painting will be included in a group show at Anne Irwin Gallery in Atlanta, in September. I'll pass along more information as we get closer, but suffice to say I'll be showing with some heavy hitters and I really feel like I have to step up my game or else I'd look totally out of place in their company! 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

From My Sketchbook

Here are some typical drawings of the figure from my sketchbook. Most of these are done as studies prior to oil painting. In a three hour session, I take the first half hour just drawing with a pen. I can get a few of these done from different angles in half an hour, exploring possibilities before committing to canvas.

I don't really think of my approach as hatching or cross hatching, because for the most part I'm not using the marks to represent values. I'm merely separating light from shadow, and differentiating form shadow edges from the cast shadow edges. The difference is in the purpose of these marks. In my view cross hatching focuses on value modulation (I have to stress that that's just my definition, to keep concepts clear in my head.) Whereas my focus is pattern

I begin by using just line (no "shading") to establish the gesture. By indicating cross-contours and overlapping forms, the volume is already present by the time I get to the shadow patterns. That is to say, the drawing is not dependent on shading to show volume.

I then map out where the shadows are going to be, alternating soft edges (represented by broken lines) for form-shadow edges and sharp edges for cast-shadow edges.

Then I just fill in the shadows with flat, parallel lines. Sometimes I'll get into modeling the form a just a little bit more with cross hatching, but only after the pattern is established, and usually only if the interesting parts are in the shadow.

Because my main aim is to find the light / shadow pattern, and not subtle value changes, the marks are (usually) only used in the shadow side. The light side is left alone even though there are value changes from highlight to half tone, which are all in the light side. 

Notice, too, that in most of these drawings, there's no value distinction between hair and skin. Again, that's because I'm only looking for light / shadow pattern and I'm ignoring local values.

Gesture refers not only to the overall action, but it applies to every form, every line. I look for it, analyze what each line / form is doing, and try to communicate that rather than what it actually looks like –which is very different from academic rendering. It's important to practice both, but I must admit I prefer short, gesture drawings far more than tediously copying every subtle value change.

One  effective way to improve your drawing is to look for, and distinguish muscle mass from its tendon. I often do this by using a curved line for the muscle mass, and a straight(er) line for the tendon. A good example might be the calf and the achilles tendon. Unless you're looking at an athlete, you may not be able to see a clear distinction. But making that distinction forces you to look harder and analyze what you're seeing. Consequently, you now have  more intent in those lines. The difference between a lazily copied calf and an intently analyzed one is significant and you can bet that it shows. 

Look for that same curved line-straight line combination in places like the quadraceps, the hamstring, the triceps. Soon you'll be seeing them all over the place.

Need more examples? Look at Old Master drawings; Pontormo, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Michelangelo, Veronese, Durer... the list goes on and on. What they all have in common is that they didn't just copy what they saw. They analyzed what they saw, and communicated that analysis with intent.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mo' Farm

Since we're on the farm motif already, here's another recent painting. This was done from a photo, as a class demo. I wanted to emphasize to my students that we don't have to be slaves to photo references.

Mother Nature rarely gives us perfect compositions all ready to be translated onto canvas. Photo references too, are typically pretty lousy as they are. I mean if the photo were perfect, there really would be no point in making a painted version of them, would there?

In designing a painting, we need to go beyond – sometimes way beyond – just copying the photograph.  We can edit, move, and otherwise alter any element we find in a photograph, or combine elements from more than one. It's all fair game. After all, we want to end up with a good painting. Nobody cares if it's a faithful copy of a photograph. 

In this painting, I made many alterations. I moved the trees, eliminated the sky, Brought the distant hills closer and planted some trees, eliminated the barn, moved the road, added some foreground shadows... and oh, made up my own color scheme.

The photograph is used mainly for inspiration and structural reference. Not color, not value, and not composition.  Composition, or design, is something the artist articulates with intention, and is rarely just "found" in nature or a snapshot. If you're copying a photo, you're not designing.  And if you're not designing, what the heck are you doing? Exercising your hand-eye coordination? May be.

Of course, editing and altering elements that we see in the photo reference or out there in the field doesn't necessarily mean improvement. Sometimes it's far, far worse. But to me, trying to make your own statement and failing, is preferable to succeeding at making a mindless copy of a photograph. The former teaches you something; it counts towards your canvas mileage. The latter doesn't.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Knights Landing Workshop

Yesterday I went out to Knights Landing, (about 20 minutes Northwest of Sacramento Airport) to do a half-day plein air workshop. It was a free workshop organized by Yolo Arts, a non-profit organization promoting the arts in Yolo County.

The workshop was part of a program called Art & Ag Project which brings together artists, local farms, and the community at large. They put together events where artists can take workshops and paint on some of the beautiful farms in the area, of which there is no shortage in Yolo County.

My little workshop was at the River Garden Farms, one of the large scale farms in the area. I had gone out there last week to scope out the scene and picked out a great old tractor. Unfortunately it wasn't in an ideal setting for a workshop so I asked if it can be moved to somewhere else on the farm. 

Luckily, they were able to accommodate us and place the tractor right in front of an old building, where it would be in full sun with a simple yet compelling background. And more importantly the students and I could be situated in an open shade during the demo. 

The reason why that was so important wasn't so much that I'd have a harder time seeing my panel and palette in the sun, but the forecast said it may go up to 109F!!  I wouldn't want anyone suffering from heat exhaustion on my watch!

It was a good thing that the workshop was only half  a day and it never got that hot thanks in part to a nice constant river breeze.

One new experience for me was that my demo was filmed. Yes, this time we had a videographer, and I had to wear a microphone. Despite many requests for instructional videos in the past I'd never done it before because I don't particularly like my video presence, but I must have been baking in the heat yesterday and I consented. We'll see how it turns out.  It isn't really a full-on instructional video, but it'll be used I think, to promote the program. I'll let you know when it shows up on the internet. Or not. If I look like an idiot, you won't be hearing about it from me.

Anyway, the demo was a fun one. I enjoyed painting the old tractor, and as the compositional set up was straightforward, it went very smoothly. I'm happy to say it was one of those no-struggle demos.

I would love to do an extended (3-day?) workshop at some point on these farms in Yolo County. Who knows, it may happen in the not-so-distant future. If you're interested, keep your eyes on this blog!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Some Recent Demos, Pt II

After my last post, I thought you might find it interesting to see the photo refs which were used to do these demo paintings. So here they are. I made them small so they could be seen side by side, but if you click on an image you'll be able to see it larger.

On this first one, A few obvious alterations on the composition can be seen; I moved the boat, along with the shoreline, up a little bit so that I'd have a more uneven division of the space. I also simplified the details. The background boats, especially are no more than non-descriptive notes of color.

One of the things I like to do is to use the photo ref for only the beginning part of the painting. Once I got the important stuff, I put it away so that I'm not distracted into copying it. In this way, I can make sure the supporting cast really supports the main player, and I can't over render anything even if I wanted to. The shoreline in the distance was painted after I put away the reference, so it doesn't look like the photo but that's completely irrelevant. It just has to look like a distant shoreline, not a specific place.


As you can see, I took out the cars. Not because I don't like to paint cars - you might have guessed by now that I like painting them – I just didn't think they added anything to the painting about this building. I did place a pedestrian to give it some life so the place didn't look deserted.

You can see I left out decorative detail everywhere, and I didn't bother to match the colors in the reference. Colors in photographs are the camera's interpretation of the visual world, and if I copied the colors, my painting would look too  much like a photograph. Not what I want. I use the color cues only as a general hue direction; If I see something is red in the photo, I'll take that as a starting point. But just what kind of red, is up to me to decide based on the color context of the painting.


The painting is keyed up so that I can get more color in the shadows. What I gained in color, I lost in value contrast.  During the first stages of the demo, the shadows were much darker and more transparent, and as I started to illuminate the shadows with ambient and bounced light, it became higher in value and more opaque. Usually, but not always, I paint all light opaquely. This includes reflected light. The rule of thumb is, if you can see it, it's lit. (by primary light or ambient or reflected light) and if it's lit, it's opaque.

Just to clarify, I'm only talking about outside light and only in general terms here. The tonal, interior stuff with dark, receding transparent shadows are a different system.

Hollister Peak. I don't remember what prompted me to paint it yellow like this, but I'm guessing it was in response to a discussion in class about making subjective color decisions. I added the trees in the lower right, again demonstrating how you don't have to be a slave to the photo ref.

Cropping in to narrow the focus on this unremarkable photo reference. I remember talking about rearranging and reshaping the trees to suit your composition. Unless it's a portrait of a tree, nobody cares if your tree matches that of the photo references. A shape that works is more important than a shape that's copied.

The same goes for color, too.  As I mentioned earlier, the green of the trees in the photo is just a starting point. What type of green on my canvas, is up to me.

I used a black and white photo for this demo. This way you really can't be tempted to copy color. You have to actually think about it. How about that! Actually, all I did was to pick a color theme and made  more or less a monochromatic painting, sneaking in just a little bit of color variations here and there.

The background is very much simplified to almost nothing. When we have a photo reference in front of us, it's really hard to ignore all the details because we think putting them all in will make the painting more convincing. Experience teaches us such is not the case, but editing still takes conscious effort. It's neither intuitive nor automatic....which is probably a good thing, because if it had to be done intuitively, I wouldn't be able to do it, seeing that I have two left brains.

Another one from a black and white photo. When I'm out in the field looking for something to paint, I find that what I respond to, more often than not, are strong shapes either in the form of compelling light and shadow patterns, or readily recognizable silhouettes. Finding beautiful colors out there (flowers, fall foliage, etc) doesn't really make me want to paint them.  I don't know why this is, but that's just what I noticed about my tendencies.  Maybe this is why a lot of my reference photos are black and white. If a photo doesn't have compelling shapes in black and white, addition of colors won't make it a better candidate. On the other hand, if there are strong shapes in a black and white reference photo, I have a lot of freedom to make subjective decisions about color.

That's my inner tonalist talking.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Some Recent Demos

For my in-studio Landscape Lab class, I usually do a demo at the beginning of the class each week. I pick a different subject or concept every time, and try to focus on specific issues. Sometimes it's about the color, other times design, still other times technique. It ends up being a lot of the same foundational ideas approached in different context, which is exactly the point of this class.

The top painting; The Boat! I'm not a marine painter. I don't know anything about boats so I don't usually paint them. But I did this one in response to students' requests, and I had a good time with it. I kept my colors a little more saturated than I typically do. It's still not pure unadulterated blue (has reds and yellows mixed in) but it's about as saturated as I dare to go.

Painting a man-made structure requires a more strict eye to pull off the drawing, because obviously, buildings aren't as forgiving as a tree. If you bend a tree limb, it'll still look like a tree. A convincing tree, even. But if you make a crooked wall, it sticks out like a sore thumb. If you paint tightly, especially, the drawing must be exacting. Painting loosely allows for more freedom but as you know, painting loosely is easier said than done.

In this painting I tried to focus on simplifying and organizing the value structure to deal with the clutter that's inherent in a street scene. 

Designing with light and shadow. A fairly quick demo, I had hoped to show that warm light / cool shadow relationship need not be screaming yellow vs. electric purple.

Not a very good photo. The blues in the sky especially seems out of harmony, but in reality the blues are much more subdued. I think this photo demonstrates, more than any painting concept, the importance of lighting conditions under which photography is conducted! I've recently noticed just how biased artificial lighting is. I mean I always knew it was, but my eyes have become more sensitive to such things. I try not to paint at night if I have to use subtle color. That means, more tonal cityscapes!

For this one, I assigned everyone a really boring photo and asked them to make something interesting out of it. In the demo, I talked about various ways of working depth into a painting, including soft perspective and atmosphere.

This demo was about perspective and picking a focal point and orchestrating to make it work. Simplifying was a big part of it. Afterwards, I did a little glazing and worked back into it so that it became much more tonal than it originally was. A quiet dusty alley way. 

Light and shadow.  Keepin' it organized, and not get too dark. Looking into the shadow side of the main element, I needed it to have a lot of ambient and bounced light to make it luminous. (I didn't want my star element to be just a dark shape) More light means lighter value and more visible color. Consequently the whole thing gets keyed up, and the sunlit areas start to lose their saturation because it approaches white (washed out). To compensate, I snuck dark notes in the background greens and saturated the lit side of the foliage.

Having to do these kinds of demos each week has helped me to understand painting concepts better, even if I can't always do a good demo. I'm getting better at it though. I like the fact that I get to practice doing demos in a controlled setting; it is an entirely different skill set than just doing good paintings. And the more I do it, the more I appreciate those who can do it well. There aren't that many out there.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

I'm Baaaack! With a New Website!

Hey! It's been a while!

First of all, thanks to everyone who took the time to let me know that my website was bonkers. I finally got off my butt and spent the last few weeks rebuilding it from scratch, and now I'm back in business!

See, it's like this. My old site was designed with Apple's iWeb software and hosted by Mac.com. It wasn't great, but it did the job and it was fairly easy to design and maintain. As it turns out, Apple is shutting down its hosting service as of June 30th, and seeing that iWeb has already been discontinued, I thought it was good time to redesign the website and move it to a new server.

But I'm an oil painter. Not a web designer nor an IT guy. So basically I made a big mess of things and it took a while to come up with functional solutions to the various pieces of the puzzle.

In the olden days, (I'm talking mid-nineties), when my brain was still not filled up with painting mumbo jumbo, I was able to learn html and build my website using a text editor. Things have changed since then and I can no longer learn new software without hurting my head. So long story short, it was a painful experience to rebuild my site!

But it looks like it's working OK now. I still have tweaking to do and I have to clean up the content, but for now, I'm pretty pleased with the result.

For those of you who're interested, I used Wordpress to build my site. After hours of research, I opted for the web-based template solution rather than a desktop-to-server solution, mainly because I needed to be able to edit it from multiple computers. And templates are pretty nifty things, if limited in flexibility.

I did end up going under the hood to make it do what I wanted to do, and I gotta say, php and css is a young man's game, man. This dog is a little too old for that. Next time I'll pay someone to do it.

Anyway, please check it out. If you notice any broken links or wonky errors, please let me know. I haven't finished entering all the information on individual images, but everything else *should* be working.

Now I can get back to painting. If I remember how!