Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Friday, July 27, 2012

Hide and Seek

Hide and Seek, 12 x 16, oil on linen

When I did my half-day workshop last month in Knights Landing, I painted an old tractor as a demo. I took a bunch of reference photos at that time, and this here is a painting I did recently from one of those photos. 

The tractor, I found later, was a 1950's model Oliver (correct me if I'm wrong) and had a lot of character. It was parked not in grass, as I've shown here, but just on a flat dirt surface. The environment is entirely out of my head - not so difficult in this case because it's just a field of grass with a few fence posts sticking out of it.

I placed the tractor high on the canvas so that I may have a big foreground. I also wanted the tall grass to obscure the bottom part of the tractor; an idea which sprang from my cow demo from a few posts ago. 

Obscurity is something I'm really interested in, you see. How much information is absolutely necessary in order to communicate the fact that it's a tractor? Can I show less than the whole silhouette? How much less? Which part or parts of the tractor are most effective as visual clues? 

These are questions I asked myself as I experimented with different amounts of obscurity. Untidy grass field like this is an ideal tool to explore the issue, as it could be as tall or short as necessary; a very flexible device. 

This is my third Oliver painting, and I'm starting to see the old tractor as something of a character in a story. Not that I'm going to write a story and illustrate it, as I'm not really interested in the narrative aspect of such a series, but I do have other compositional ideas that I want to try.  Fortunately I have a bunch of photos from different angles, so I should be able to do a variety. 

And who knows, it may end up becoming an interesting series.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

More on Abstraction

Head Study, 12 x 9 inches, oil on paper.

Several weeks ago I got stuck doing a big landscape painting –what you'd call a slump –and I'm still stuck. I haven't been able to resolve the painting yet, but I did make some progress and I think may be the tide is turning. (whew~)

On the figure painting front, I've done a few good studies during this time. Nothing more involved than small studies, but I'm particularly happy with this one I'm posting today.

I've been thinking about Nicolai Fechin lately and how he slipped in and out of abstraction in such a masterful way. I wanted to know and understand how and what he thought to achieve his expressive yet precise strokes. Obviously I can't ask him or watch him paint (he's long gone) so all I can do is study his works, guess at his thought process, and try to get into his head.

In order to paint expressively and abstractly, you have to disconnect yourself from representational thinking. On the other hand, colors and values still need to be spot on so that the form is believable, meaning you have to think representationally. How to reconcile this dichotomy? Thinking representationally and NOT thinking representationally are quite simply, a contradiction, isn't it?

It's taken me years to figure out how to do it. I still can't do it to my satisfaction, but I'm definitely making progress, and that's encouraging. I was thinking, damn, I wish I had a teacher who could tell me how to do this! Turns out, I did have a teacher, many teachers who told me how to do this, in many different ways;  "Don't paint the thing. Paint the light." "Paint notes of color." "Lay down overlapping mosaics of color." "Don't name the thing you're painting."

I just wasn't ready to fully understand what they meant! It's true what they say about learning; You only learn something when you're ready to learn it.

The way I finally was able to resolve the representation–abstraction dichotomy was to think representationally at the palette, and consciously and intentionally switch gears into non-representational thinking at the point of application. And I found that it's very helpful if I slow wayyyy down and review each stroke and ask myself, was I thinking nose, or note when I put that down?

Obviously if I have to review each stroke, it takes a hell of a long time to do even a simple picture but after a while, switching gears start to become more of an intuitive process.

Because this whole gear switching business is counterintuitive for me, it takes a lot of mental effort and I do envy those who're able to think this way more naturally.  But that's OK, the challenging nature of the process is what makes it fascinating. If it came to me easily, I probably wouldn't be interested in it.

I just ordered the new Fechin book. I can't wait to get my hands on it!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Cows Are People Too~

Cows are people too. No, not really, but I like them. They're pretty casual, ya know? And they got personality (bovinality?).

I did this little study for my landscape class. I tried to demystify the process by breaking it down to simple, digestible steps. So, here's the formula (the F-word) for painting cows; read on.

  1. Have a good reference photo
  2. Draw the cow.
  3. Block in the shadow patterns.
  4. Mix two colors; one for light, one for shadow.
  5. Fill in shadow side, fill in light side.
  6. Distinguish form edges from cast edges.
  7. Add highlights.
  8. Paint background.
If you thought this sounds just like what I described in the last post about drawing and painting the figure, you would be right. The only difference being the shape of the model. In fact I pretty much approach everything the same way. There's nothing innately unique about painting cows or trees or rocks. If there were "how to's" for each thing you include in a painting, you'd have to learn and memorize a thousand formulae, wouldn't you? How to paint cows. How to paint rocks. How to paint pine trees. How to paint the eucalyptus, and on and on. But if you're just painting light and shadow, that's just TWO things you have to worry about, no matter what the motif. And if you make sure the shapes make sense, you can pretty much paint anything. Cows, tractors...same thing. 

In reality, it's not that simple. But the sooner you stop asking "how do I paint cows (trees, boulders, tractors)?" and start asking "how do I paint light and shadow?", the sooner you'll learn to paint.

If you're pissed off by the above statement, I'm sorry! I don't expect anyone to believe everything I say, so if you want to keep on collecting formulae, please, don't mind me. 

OK so the 8-step formula I presented above is, obviously an oversimplification of the process. The important thing is to understand why certain decisions are made, so that you may apply the same process to other things. 

With that in mind, here's the same steps again, with a little more in-depth explanation. 

1.Have a good reference photo which shows a strong silhouette that is easily recognizable.  When you have a strong silhouette, you don't need much else to communicate what the thing is. (In this case, a cow, but it applies to anything else) If you have one or two such silhouettes, the rest of the herd can be just abstract blobs and the viewer's brain will define them as additional cows. This is true whether you're painting cows, or trees, or cars, for that matter.
Also, make sure the cow is directly lit, with a clear light and shadow pattern. This makes modeling a lot easier than if you had a subtler and more complex light situations. (I'm not saying you can't do indirect or subtle light. I'm just saying direct light is easier.)
2.Draw the cow. I use a mix of transparent iron oxide and ultramarine, with Gamsol. Using a brush, I draw lightly and gesturally, trying really hard to get it right before moving on. You can't fix a bad drawing with pretty colors. You gotta get it right. Remember, the process depends on a good silhouette. That means good shapes. If you don't have good shapes, you don't have good foundation. Ever tried to build on poor foundation?
3.Block in the shadow patterns. Pretty much the same as I did with the figure in the last post. With paint, I use the same color that I used to draw with. It could be done fairly dry, or wet like watercolor. But if you do it wet, let it settle a bit before moving on because you can't really paint on top of the drippy surface.
4.Mix two colors, one for shadow, one for light. You can paint the cow any color you like, but as with basic figure drawing / painting, my foundation is two values. So the two colors are just lighter and darker variations of one another. Make sure you warm up the lighter one by adding yellows or oranges or reds. If you rely only on white, your lights will be too cool and the cow will end up looking like its  standing under fluorescent lighting.
 5.Paint the cow with the two colors you just mixed. Keep it simple! Since you already have it blocked in (Step 3), it should be a simple matter of applying opaque colors to corresponding areas. 
6.Distinguish form shadow edges from cast shadow edges. Again, same as on the figure. Form shadow edges are softer because they describe a gradual transition from light into shadow as the form turns away from the light source. Cast shadow edges, by comparison, are sharper. You can make them super sharp until you get used to the idea. Worry about subtleties later.
7.Add highlights. This is where, were I drawing on toned paper, I would use the white conte. The introduction of this third value (up till now there were only two values) suddenly makes the forms look a bit more modeled and complex.
8.Paint the background. I just filled it all in with grassy green. I used this opportunity to refine the shape of the cow from the outside. The head kept looking like a horse's head so it took me quite a bit of going back and forth to make it work. This is where an intimate knowledge (which I don't have) of the animal's anatomy is extremely helpful. I've painted enough cows to be a little bit familiar with its shapes, but not nearly as proficient as some of those Western painters. Horses? forget it. I don't know anything about horses. If I painted horses, they probably come out looking like cows.
One last thing. often the cow in the landscape is standing in grass. This means that there's grass between you, the viewer, and the cow. Therefore, the lower parts of the animal; hooves, and in this case its mouth is obscured by the grass. A softer transition will accomplish this. All too often we see landscape paintings where cows seem to be standing on green linoleum or floating on top of the grass because not enough attention was paid to visually integrating the cow's feet to the ground. Remember, the cows are in the meadow, eating buttercups, not pasted on the meadow. or floating above it.

I hope this long winded explanation of my cow painting wasn't too boring. And I really hope that you don't take this as a formula for painting cows. Rather, it is an explanation of a process for painting almost anything, using a cow as an example.

Wow that was a long post. If you stayed with me this far, thanks! You're a trooper :-D


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Simple Value Structure... on the Figure, Too

This week I'm starting a new round of figure painting classes at the School of Light and Color in Fair Oaks. The class meets once a week, (Wednesday afternoons) and we will work in oils, with a model. 

I have been teaching figure drawing and painting in three-month rotations because I see the two disciplines as tightly related, but I just don't have the time to teach both at the same time. Teaching two classes a week (the figure, and the landscape) is just about the right amount of time to keep me on my toes. Any more time away from my own easel and I won't get any of my own work done.

So we just finished the drawing rotation, and are going into painting for the next three months. On today's post, I thought I'd talk briefly about the transition.

It all boils down to building on solid gesture, and moving on to simple value structure. In the beginning of the drawing classes, we focused on short (2 min) poses and used only line to capture the gesture and the volume. This really is key - as I mentioned many times before, if you can see, and put down on paper gesture (communicate what the figure is doing, not what it looks like) and show convincing volume without the help of "shading", the values that we (eventually) impose upon these figures will not be crutches. 

Here's a typical sheet of 14 x 17 paper with 2 minute gestures, using line. I use a 4B or 6B charcoal pencil. As you can see, you can show volume without the help of shading.

Same deal, on toned paper. The two keys to getting volume with line only, are 1) when one form meets another, look for form overlap. You won't be able to see them every time, but you should be able to see that one muscle is in front of another. Nothing in the human figure lines up end to end like sausages! 

and 2), indicate cross contours. Imagine hems on bicycle shorts to draw cross contours across the thigh. These don't need to be very visible. More subliminal than visible - after all, they're just construction lines.

After the gesture and form is already established, map out the shadow patterns and fill them in. Obviously, this type of approach needs a single, strong light source. Diffused light doesn't work the same way. 


1) distinguish form shadow edges (soft) from cast shadow edges. (sharp). If you can't tell whether a shadow edge is sharp or soft, determine first whether it's a form shadow edge or a cast shadow edge, and then force softness or sharpness upon it accordingly. 

2) fill the shadow areas in evenly. This isn't about modeling with value, but  about separating light from shadow. You only need two values and distinct edges to do this. If you got the first (gesture / line) part successfully, you'll notice you don't need to render the value here. Besides, you only have a few minutes!

The sketch above is done with a ball point pen, so the soft edges of the form shadows has to be expressed with broken lines. With a charcoal pencil, I just use the broadside of the lead for soft edges and the sharp point for the sharp edges.

If I have more time, (10 - 20 min) I'll do a little more than flatly filling in the shadow area, but let me stress here that the form has already been established so the variations in value has more to do with expression than information.

And then we move on to toned paper. We do exactly the same thing as charcoal pencil on white paper, except with a sanguine pencil and a darker-than-white paper, plus the addition of white conte. 

It's important to note that the value of the pencil (dark), the paper (medium), and conte (light) represent three different functions. As with b/w drawings, the pencil represents shadow areas, the paper represents the lit areas, and the conte represents the highlights on the lit areas.

Keeping these functions separate and distinct keeps the value structure simple and organized.

We're still not rendering values. Just indicating where the shadows, lights, and highlights are, with different tools. There really shouldn't be any ambiguity anywhere.

So we move onto PAINT this week. The idea is the same, just the medium is different. The figure above is painted with black only. The light side is toned with the same black (very lightly), the shadow side is just darker, more or less filled in flat. The highlights–where I would have used a conte in a drawing– is just rubbed away with a rag to reveal the white canvas.  This sketch has the addition of a fourth value, a darker dark surrounding the figure (Also used in a few areas within the figure).  But still,  four values is pretty simple and straightforward. 

And then the introduction of white paint allows us to go from transparent to opaque. The value structure is still very simple, but each gray is mixed from black and white. 

Once the basic structure is established, we can work on variations within the shapes, taking care to keep these variations subtle enough in order not to fragment the original structure.

With the introduction of color, things start to get more complicated but the idea of building on simple value structure doesn't change. 


My class starts this week, and I have a few spots open still. If you're interested, please call (916)966-7517 to sign up! You don't have to have been in my drawing class to jump into the painting class - I hope this post has given you some idea of what I teach in these classes. 

If this is the sort of painting you want to learn, I don't care what level you are. But please be forewarned. It takes practice. Lots of practice. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Barn Demo

As many of you know, I teach an in-studio landscape painting class (as opposed to plein air) once a week at The School of Light and Color in Fair Oaks, CA. Students either bring their own projects (work from their own photo refs, studies, etc.) or they can use a photo from my stack.

I usually do a demo at the beginning of each class, and the rest of the time, they work at their easels and I go around giving advice and instruction. I have a pretty great bunch of students who keep the energy level up and keep me on my toes.

Many of the small paintings I post on Studio Notes are demos from this class, as with today's post. Often I assign homework and then I do my version of the homework as a demo, so that the students can see what I'm talking about, and what I wanted them to get out of the assignment. I never expect anyone to do it my way per se, but I try to explain why I make the decisions that I do. In that way, I hope to communicate to them the more foundational principles on which to build their own decision making processes, rather than just "this is how you paint a barn" type of lessons.

One of the recurring themes in my class is "Don't be a slave to photo references". For beginning painters, it's often very difficult to go beyond merely copying the photograph. With experience and improved craft, the student becomes more comfortable editing the photo to improve the design, color, etc. We've touched on this topic many times in this blog, too.

Going one step further, I asked my students to use this photo as a structural reference ONLY for the barn, and invent the environment that surrounds it. I mean... look at this picture! Who would want to paint this boring scene as is!? They were free to paint from imagination, or use other sources for additional reference.

This isn't easy to do if you've never worked this way before. It does take a lot of practice to feel comfortable enough to ignore what you see in the photo. Nonetheless, my students were troopers and came back with some creative solutions.

In my demo, I didn't do anything unusually tricky; making a conventional painting was tricky enough, given the nature of the assignment. I talked about ways to emphasize the "star"element (strong contrasts, edges, etc), making the lighting consistent (direction and temperature), keeping things simple (don't render everything!) among other things.

I used transparent white instead of titanium (just to shake things up) which behaves very differently and I had trouble making some areas lighter. I often paint dark to light in a given area but without a strong opaque white, this proved to be a losing battle. So I had to stop after about an hour.

Still, it's not too bad.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Recent Studies

When I do these small paintings in the studio, I usually am working out ideas regarding design or abstraction or color or some other specific issue. I tried to get them resolved before I forget that I was thinking about them at all (seems it's becoming easier and easier to forget these days!) 

I have been rather preoccupied with the idea of saying more with less, and the top picture is a pretty good example. Just how much must you describe to communicate what the thing is? Sometimes, not much. In this case, the only thing that's really defined is the barn roof, and may be the one evergreen tree to the right. Everything else is sort of suggested, and defined only by context and association. Of course, colors and values have to still make sense, but very few shapes are necessary. I just think of them as clues to a puzzle or a mystery. Sorta like,  what the heck is this picture? Here's a clue for ya. If you give them too many clues, it's no longer a mystery. It no longer engages the viewer.

That's the idea, anyway.

Tight harmonies, earth tones and a lower key. That was the set of requirements that I gave myself for this little painting. Shaping the tree took a while, as it had to be convincing enough to carry the whole picture. (there are no other clues). I love the "old" look of this palette.

This one, on the other hand, is painted with no earthtones on the palette. The browns and ochres are just mixed from brighter colors. I was interested in doing a more colorful painting than usual, especially in the higher end of the value range. It's richer, but still a little bit subdued. 

Expressing the mountainside abstractly. Just barely separating trees from the dirt, but moving the shapes to show topography. I'm exploring this further.

It's summertime! Remembering the lazy days of summer from childhood. Just sitting around watching the clouds float by. Ah, those were the days. 

I usually touch all three primaries to mix (almost) every color I use on the canvas, but in this painting, I held back on the blue of the sky. I only used blue and white (ultramarine near top, cerulean beneath) to keep  the statement pure and simple. I'm not too comfortable with pure(r)colors, but I'm trying to get used to them in an effort to expand my visual vocabulary. 

All of these are available for purchase (except the top one, which is already sold). Email me if you're interested!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

River, Framed

Here's the same painting in a nice Santa Cruz frame. I like it!

Sunday, July 1, 2012


River Dragon, 9 x 12 inches, oil on linen 
This painting is Available. $700 framed.

If this painting looks like I was standing in the middle of the river, that's because I was. Well, not exactly. I was sitting. In a kayak. I had my camera with me (thankfully, I didn't drop it in the water!) and was shooting references of river motifs from vantage points which would have been improbable had I been walking around on shore.

I don't normally make paintings with weird or extraordinary vantage points because quite often I end up with a composition where the extraordinariness of the situation is the only thing the viewer notices. It might be interesting, but it gets in the way of my trying to communicate subtler things.

Here's the reference photo  You'll notice I changed some things in my painting. First, I keyed it down quite a bit. I wanted a moody, tonal painting and I wanted to make sure the foliage colors didn't get washed out. In bringing down the key, the shadow areas became much deeper and darker. This sacrifices visible color in that area, but what I gain is more drama and mystery. It's a calculated compromise. 

Had I been going after more colorist, impressionistic expression, The values overall would be much lighter and and the colors would be more saturated in the shadows. The value jump between light and shadow would be less pronounced but we would see more color contrasts and variations. 

I also changed the shape of the fallen trunk. The straighter one wasn't what caught my eye, so I just took it out. This painting is called River Dragon, not River Dragon Kebab

I played around with the reflection in the foreground, but in the end decided to play it down and darken the area, again, in favor of moodiness. Reflections are fun to paint and tempts us every time, but we have to think about its function in a picture. If you over do it, it takes away the spotlight from the star of the show.

Lastly, the color I used for the sky is entirely subjective. It's just a lighter version of the dominant colors I've already established, tweaked a little toward yellow so that it doesn't look too monochromatic. The result is a very tonal background which is tightly harmonized. Unity is the thing.

 Here's my kayak! I'm about to bump into Clark Mitchell. Beyond Clark is Randy Sexton, and you can see Peggi and Ray Roberts riding tandem to the right. 

Sometimes you just can't drive or hike to a location so we have to risk our lives in alligator infested waters for our art.

Not. This was just a fun day of collecting reference shots on the river. No Alligators.