Friday, March 29, 2013

Lost and Found (Edges)




Red Obi, 16 x 20 inches, oil on linen

I was just reading my old posts and noticed that I had never posted this piece! I don't know why I forgot to share this because it was one of those breakthrough pieces for me and I remember being totally excited about it.

I did this... I don't know, may be six or eight months ago, painted from a model. That's worth noting (for me, that is) because I typically only do studies from life, and heavily abstracted, finished paintings are usually done from those studies. 

The reason I do it that way is because with a model in front of me, I find it very difficult to get out of the representational frame of mind. I need some mental and psychological distance between the subject and myself to really dig deep into the abstraction thing. Usually. 

But somehow I was able to pull this one off, and take it further than I'd ever done in my previous attempts.  I spent a lot of time losing and finding and losing again many of the descriptive edges, and consciously making "wrong" edge decisions. By "wrong" I mean breaking the rules of representational painting.  You know, like form shadow edges are soft and cast shadow edges are sharp. Or the one about softening edges on forms that turn away from us. Or the one about using sharper edges on the more (conventionally) interesting areas. 

For whatever reason, I was able to take more risks on this one, and it paid off. More often than not, when I take big risks with the painting, I end up making a big mess and I fight with it for hours on end only to lose the battle - the painting ends up in the trash. Oh I always learn from the fight, so I am perfectly willing to go into battle, knowing my odds of winning are slim. So on the rare occasion when I do win, like on this painting, I'm really surprised and delighted. 

I probably wouldn't find such joy and excitement  in it if I won more often. But I do wish it would happen every time!

Red Obi will be exhibited in the California Art Club's 102nd annual Gold Medal Exhibition at the USC Fisher Museum of Art this June. I'll have more on that later, but if you 're in the area, this is a show not to be missed. 




Saturday, March 23, 2013

Paint the Historic Delta Towns - a Workshop!



I will be doing a three-day workshop in May! (Friday - Sunday, May 3 - 5) 

This workshop is a little different from my usual workshops in that it incorporates both indoor and plein air work. Let me tell you a little bit about it.

We will be painting the historic Sacramento Delta towns of Locke and Isleton. Locke is an old Chinese settlement on the Sacramento River, founded 1915 or thereabouts, and it still stands pretty much the way it was then. It's a little one block town (literally!) where the main street is so narrow you could almost jump across it. The wooden buildings are rickety and crooked but for the most part still standing.

Isleton, several miles downriver, is also a historic settlement but has an entirely different flavor from Locke. Both are full of character and just waiting to be painted!





So what I want to do with this workshop, is to split it into two parts. The first part will involve on-location plein air sketches and studies, and shooting photo references. We focus on information gathering; what's important? what's just fluff? What needs to be said? What needs to be edited? 

Rather than trying to complete paintings on location, our plein air studies will have a bit of a different, yet specific purpose of being studies for a larger studio painting which will be executed in studio.





Main street Locke. Take away the cars and it's a time warp.



Which brings us to part two. Using our plein air studies, and photo references we collecte, we will work up a larger studio painting indoors at the School of Light and Color in Fair Oaks, Cal, which, by the way, is next to my studio.

I want us to really pay attention to the process of doing a larger studio painting, and put the time and effort into prep work.  I think too many of us just rush into it and end up frustrated and disappointed (is that you nodding your head?). 





Because, as you know, painting is not about copying a photograph. You have to create a compelling image by which you communicate your version of the world. Your vision. Your experience. 

That's easier said than done, of course, and not something you can learn over one weekend. But this workshop will help you take the guesswork out of the process, become more aware of what's essential and what's not, and be more visually articulate.




Hotel Del Rio in Isleton.


So if you want to learn more about creating studio paintings from field studies, paint funky street scenes of towns that time forgot, and have a few drinks with me at Al the Wops, join me this May and come sling some paint!

Historic Delta Towns; From Field Studies to Studio Finishes
May 3 - 5. Tuition: $395

To sign up, please contact Debbie at

The School of Light and Color
email: sarback@lightandcolor.comsarback@lightandcolor.com
phone: (916) 966-7517


All levels are welcome, but you should have a basic understanding of oil painting, and some plein air experience.



'Hope you can make it!!


Find out more about Locke and Isleton






Monday, March 18, 2013

Head Study


This head study I did last week is modeled a bit more than I usually do. I'm not a portrait painter and the heads I paint are typically devoid of details, but from time to time I have to do a tighter head to reassure myself that my looser, suggested heads are by choice and design, not because I can't do otherwise.

Still, this cowboy head isn't all that detailed when compared to many of the realist portrait painters out there.

There are many ways to approach head painting. There's no one best way, and no rule or tip is absolute because there are so many variables in each situation. Even the most general good ideas are not exempt from context, so please take the following tips that I offer with grains of salt!


  • Have a good, direct light source. Yes, many paintings use diffused lighting, but I think it's best to first have a thorough understanding of light/form relationship. And to study that, direct light is essential. Once you have a good grasp of this Form Principle, diffused light situations will make more sense.
  • Have enough value separation between light and shadow. The darkest light is lighter than the lightest shadow. 
  • Big shapes and forms need to happen first, then smaller ones as subtler variations within the big shapes. Don't start painting eyelids and nostrils before you have established the front and side planes of the skull, in other words.
  • Wherever there's a plane change, there's a value change. Yes, you can show a plane change through color/temperature change alone, but that's not a substitute for an inability to control subtle values.
  • The darkest notes often define the features. Place them as accurately as possible. 
  • Find ways to soften/lose edges around eyes and lips. You don't want sharp outlines all around them.
  • Shadow patterns in and around the eye socket often connect with the dark shapes in the eye - a good way to lose edges.
  • Eyeballs are spheres. Eyelids need to sit on this spherical surface, so don't paint them as if they're on a flat surface. 
  • The mouth, too are on a curved surface. Don't make them look like they're on a flat surface. 
  • The front plane of the face also has a curve to it. The left side and the right side should have different values.
  • Just as there's a value change on a form from one side to the other, there's a value change vertically, too. The head is like an egg, not a box. 
  • Establish these value changes on big forms quite early in the process.
  • Often (but not always) the truest and more saturated local colors are found in the halftone areas. The colors in the lighter lights (including the highlights) often dominated by the color of the light.
  • The highlight may appear cooler than the surrounding area. The light will still feel warm as long as the general relationship  of warm light vs. cool shadow is established. 
  • Form shadow edges are softer, and cast shadow edges are sharper. You get more volume if you emphasize this difference. But don't overdo it, or you'll end up with a lumpy mass.
  • The darkest darks are usually very warm. Don't just mix black and be done with it!
  • The darkest darks are usually crevices and holes, or other receding areas. They're dark because they're not getting any direct, bounced, or ambient light. Painting these areas thin and transparent really helps to make them not pop forward.
  • On the flip side, if you want an area to pop forward, opacity and impasto are good tools to use.
  • When appropriate, make sure the underplane of the nose is clearly defined. You can often see a core shadow as the forms turns under ; a small but effective shape not to be overlooked.
  • Same thing with the underplane of the lower jaw. 
  • Colors of the shadow planes depend on that of the reflected/ambient light. You should be able to tell why a shadow plane looks warmer or cooler. Knowing the reasons will help you paint these planes more decisively, rather than mindlessly copying what you see.
  • Define a hierarchy of highlight strengths. If you paint them all the same, you'll have a head decorated with Christmas lights!

OK that's enough for now - I can think of others but I'll save them for next time. If I had to summarize the most helpful tip (or I should say, what I find most helpful in my own studies), it would be "big things first." (big shapes, big forms, big value changes, big transitions...) "Paint small things as variations within the big things." and "Place the darkest darks as accurately as possible."

Again, these rules and tips are just what I think about when I do my heads. Other people have different concerns and I don't really care to argue any of the points I made. If you find them helpful, great! 

Happy painting~


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Town and Country



Hotel Sequoia, Redwood City, 12 x 9 inches, oil on linen panel


I always do a demo in my landscape concepts class, and this one is from last week. I used a reference photo which was a snapshot I took last summer when I was down in Redwood City to do a workshop. I love to paint old buildings like this –just so much character!

Anyhow, I spent some time explaining linear perspective. Finding the eye-level, the vanishing points, and stressing the importance of accuracy in these lines to depict believable space. When a student ends up with wonky drawing in their cityscapes, it's usually because he didn't pay enough attention to the vanishing points. Sloppy perspective will do you in every time.

The figures are placed after the environment is more or less established. I may indicate them at the very initial stage just so I can see the composition, but when I'm painting the building that's behind the figures or the ground plane under them, I go right over the initial drawing as if they weren't there. 

Otherwise, I'd be painting around the small, shapes and that's a sure way to lose sponteneaty and continuity. 

Once the environment is established, I draw the silhouettes of the figures with my dark, transparent mix of ultramarine and transparent oxide red. (this is the mix I use for the initial drawing, the transparent value block in, and the darkest dark accents) Gesture is the most important thing here, and proportions second only to gesture.

If the ground plane is more or less level, and the viewer (the artist) is standing on the same level ground plane, placing these figures is a simple matter of sticking their heads on the eye-level, which happens to be the horizon line. If the artists's eye level is, say, 5'4" off the ground, everything on the horizon line is 5'4" tall. 

So assuming the figure on the right is about my height, I just stick his head on the horizon line, and draw downwards from the head.  The figure on the left is shorter, so I put her head slightly lower. I have the first figure to refer to, so I just need to put her feet at about the same invisible line as the first, and I have two figures of different heights standing next to each other, correctly placed in the environment. 

If I wanted to place additional figures farther down the sidewalk, they'd be smaller, of course, but their heads would still be on or very close to the horizon line.

If you're having trouble with perspective, I recommend Ernest Norling's Perspective Made Easy from Dover Publishing. It's an old book but it does an excellent job of explaining perspective drawing in layman's terms. 







Coastal Farm, 7 x 18 inches, oil on linen panel


Coastal Farm is from the previous week. These farm buildings actually had hills stretching behind them, but I took them out because I wanted a simpler background to juxtapose against the busy middle ground.

I also wanted to see if I could make it look like it was near the coast by giving it a wispy, cool atmosphere. It's easy enough to make something coastal if you include obvious visual cues like... the ocean. But what if I didn't have any such visual element?  Would the atmosphere be enough to suggest it? 

I think so. Upon seeing this painting, two people have told me it looked like it was near the coast, without being told anything about it. (including the title, of course)  I don't know about the rest of the world, but I think, at least, it captures our California coastal atmosphere.

Both of these paintings are available (as of this post). If you are interested in adding one or both to your collection, please email me. I'll be happy to give you more information~



Spring is here! Get out and paint!!