Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Monday, March 31, 2014

You Win Some, You Lose Some

When you see an artist's work online,  typically you're looking at finished pieces that the artist deemed good enough to show. Sometimes you get to see demos and works in progress, but these too, are ones that eventually turned out good.

You rarely see failed paintings, do you? Of course not. why would anyone broadcast their failures? It's not good for your fragile ego, and it can't be good for marketing your brand.  

But any artist knows, and anyone seriously interested in any kind of art knows, that failures are a part of the game. The great artists aren't great because they make successful paintings all the time. They're great because they've had, and have learned from, more failed paintings than your average artist has had successful ones. I mean how does one hope to learn and get better if you didn't fail?

Truth be told,  I have more failed paintings than successful ones. That is to say, most of my paintings are never shown or sold.  

So today I thought I'd share a recent failed painting. Oh, don't worry about my fragile ego - this happens so often that it doesn't affect me so much anymore. (Yes, there was a time when every failed painting caused despair )

OK, so this painting is from a figure painting session last week.  I don't have shots of earlier stages, but we start here at the end of the three hour session. As a sketch, it was OK. It wasn't great, but it wasn't really bad. The drawing was reasonably accurate, and form and colors were OK too, if predictably boring. 

What I didn't like was the way her legs didn't have enough variation. Didn't have enough brush activity. Not just her leg, but the surrounding darks as well. The way the legs were positioned didn't create a shape that were strong enough to hold interest on its own, so I needed something more than shape. I tried a few different leg positions, but of course this being after the session had ended, I didn't have the model in front of me. Sometimes I can make stuff up. Sometimes, I can't. 

Her head is scraped off too, because I didn't like that it was too literal.  If you're familiar with my work, you know that, unless I'm doing a head study, I prefer not to get too specific with the features. This is because I'm not interested in creating a portrait and communicating a specific identity. What I'm interested in is more universal, so the specific identity would get in the way. I prefer to suggest anonymity.

 And then I had this idea to put a dress or a nightgown on her. The idea was to break up the boring single shape of the legs and create two different shapes in the leg area. The fabric, and the flesh of the lower leg.

I also turned the head away slightly (more anonymity, less identity), and gave her a dark hair and a dark background so that I could connect some like-valued shapes and simplify the head area. I also lightened the background behind the upper torso, to lessen the value contrast between the figure and the background.  I wasn't trying to paint any particular piece of furniture, just putting color/values down abstractly.

I crossed her lower legs, in an attempt to create a little more dimensional interest. The legs were profile view before, which was one reason it wasn't interesting enough.

Then I thought, hmmm. Too much suggestion of the environment. I need to make it simpler! So I extended that violet gray color in the background. I made it close in value to the face to lessen the impact there (again, less information) and lightened the hair mass so that the value contrast in that entire area is decreased for the same reason. Less information = more anonymity = more mystery.

The head got too big so I started reshaping it, and it kinda became a blob.  I thought too, that I lost too much contrast overall, so I brought back some darks in the background. I tried shortening the nightgown to show her knees which would give me an opportunity to show some anatomical information that I lost by clothing her.  And the balance of shapes would be better, overall.

But of course I can't paint anatomically convincing knees without a model, so...

At this point, I saw that it was deteriorating quickly. I lost too much information which I couldn't bring back because again, I can't always make up stuff.

I was getting sloppy and careless, so it was time to concede defeat.

And so this is where I stopped. Can I get a model to sit for me again in the same position and finish the painting? Yes, but I don't want to. I've exhausted my enthusiasm for this painting. The best thing to do is to wipe it clean while it's still wet, and reuse the canvas.

This was a painting which started out as a sketch, and became a vehicle for exploration, meaning I didn't have a real concept or a plan.  I think it's important to be clear about this. Because when you're exploring, you expect that sometimes (more often than not?) you don't find what you're looking for. IF you even know what you're looking for.

Many of my successful paintings are not done this way. I do a fair number of studies and planning when I do larger paintings, and with those I know where I'm going. When I fail with those, it hurts. But with an exploratory pieces like Miss Sadface here, I don't necessarily expect to have a show worthy piece so if it  blows up in my face, it really is not a big deal.

Being unrealistic with your expectations can really mess you up, ya know?

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Galatea, 18 x 14, oil on linen

If you remember your Greek mythology from your high school days, you will know who Galatea is, and perhaps can guess at the significance of the title. For those of you who don't remember, here's the short version of the story;

There was this sculptor named Pygmalion, who was not interested in the women of his village because they were all prostitutes and he didn't want anything to do with them. So he created this life size sculpture, which was the image of his ideal woman.  She was so perfect that Pygmalion fell in love with her, and wished that she would come alive. Venus (Aphrodite) granted him this wish, and the sculpture came to life. They lived happily ever after. Her name was Galatea. 

Now I'm not painting any "ideal woman" nor did the painting come to life, but I thought the title–suggested by a friend who is more literary than  I–was apropos. 

Here's how it happened. I teach a weekly figure painting class, and one day the model didn't show up. This happens from time to time, and it is very annoying when a model doesn't show and doesn't even bother to call. Most of my models are awesome and very reliable and I appreciate all they do for me, but sometimes one of them turns out to be a little flakey.  

So the model doesn't show. I still have a class to teach.  I decide to set up some still lifes with plaster casts of sculptures. They're not replicas of great Italian sculptures or anything - they're props for still life painting classes. 

But that's OK. I have the students use them as references and paint. One curve ball I threw at them was that they had to paint them as if they were painting flesh, not plaster. They had to make up the flesh tones that they weren't seeing, which proved to be quite a challenge.

I did a little demo, and later on after class, I tried it again in my studio, using the same statuette. I worked on it for a few hours and abandoned it. It looked like a live model, but it was missing the artist's (that would be me) expression.

After several days, I came back to it and started putting more paint on the canvas. The surface was semi dry by this time. I began by putting more paint on the background, and started "cutting in" to the figure itself. As I became more comfortable, I became less worried about keeping the information that was already there.

And then I started repainting the figure, as well as the background, and generally pushing the abstraction. Most of my energy was spent on integrating the figure into the background.  After a day or so, I noticed that the integrating part was nice, but I lost the drawing. So I needed to go back in and find my drawing again.

And here is the redrawn canvas. The light is different (changing north light, cell phone camera) but you get the idea. I particularly didn't like the gesture of her arm, and the position of the foot. So I redrew the figure using a small brush and a dark color, and basically repainted the whole thing.

This is typical of my process. I find that I have to be willing to redraw and repaint any and every part of the painting at any given point, or I become too timid with my brush. And with a timid brush, I can only do timid paintings. 

So the plaster statuette became this fleshy semi-abstracted nude. I'm still not in love with her, but I love the painting. I thought Galatea was a good title for it. 

Am I Pygmalion then? I have no feelings about that. But the concept Pygmalion effect is interesting. It refers to the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy. If you expect yourself to be great, you will be great. Or at least, you will perform to meet those higher expectations. 

We artists are always disappointed because our expectations are always higher than what we can achieve. But it is also true that because our expectations are always higher, we continue to improve. It's just that the progress is so damn slow and inconsistent, we become frustrated. But if you keep trying to meet your expectations, you will improve.  The trick is not to dwell on how you didn't meet your expectations, but to recognize how far you've come since began this journey. You'll see that despite obstacles and wrong turns, you are definitely making progress.  It's about the journey, after all.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Recent Cityscapes

To And Fro, 14.5 x 24, oil on linen

Well it's been a few weeks since my last post. This season have been super busy for me. Since the new year, I've taught three workshops, and have participated in three group shows. This on top of my weekly classes so I've just been swamped. 

In the next few months, I have more openings coming up; The California Art Club's 103rd Gold Medal Exhibition, A group show at the California Museum of Fine Art, Paso Robles Festival of the Arts Signature Exhibition, another group show at the Holton Studio Gallery, and the annual auction at the Crocker Museum. It's madness!

Producing paintings for these shows has been a challenge to say the least, but the pressure and time constraints caused me to focus more, and I'm happy to say I'm liking my recent paintings very much.

The piece at the top is one of my favorites. I was able to move my brush more freely, not confining myself to defined and definite shapes. That's key to good painting (strictly in the context of my painting journey) and it's one step closer to letting go of rules and structure and painting intuitively. 

For me, and for great many, that is about the hardest thing to do in painting. It's pure jazz, is what it is. I have only had glimpses of this improvisational jazz state in my work, but I feel that with this one, I was in it a good long time. 

The next two may look familiar to you; I've taken cues from an earlier blog post, and actually did new versions from a detail shots of a larger cityscape painting. One big difference between these and the previous cropped versions is that I did not do a careful drawing to begin with. I didn't even grid these. I just went in with loose washes and slowly found my shapes as I developed the painting.

Pursuit, 11 x 14, oil on linen

I like the abstract nature of the marks I got with this freehand method. Although working on large cityscapes this way still fills me with doubt and trepidation. These were just 11 x 14, so I felt more confident. I mean if I screwed them up, no big deal. I can start over without too much damage to my self confidence, whereas on a big canvas, it might really hurt.

Ride, 11 x 14, oil on linen

I like to go back to something I did years ago, and try to do a new version of it to see how different it would turn out. My work is always evolving, and I would hope that I'm getting better at this painting stuff. 

Now that I'm pushing abstraction more and more, it's really interesting to see how I'm solving the same problems differently. The painting below is a new one, but I first tackled it 10 years ago. I no longer have that one but I distinctly remember working on it. I was happy with the painting but I know it was much tighter than this new version. The subject matter is the entrance to the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi, where I visited during my month long residency in Umbria.

Visiting St. Francis, 14 x 11, oil on linen

The shapes of the architectural detail, while not precise, still need to be reasonably convincing. Which is a problem because in trying to define those shapes accurately, the abstraction aspect is completely compromised. And the reverse is true, too, if you push abstraction, you sacrifice reality. So achieving some sort of balance was the big challenge in this painting. It took several alternating layers of  accuracy of representation and abstraction/ deconstruction. I wish I could just jump into abstraction from the get go, but I don't even know how that works so I gotta do it the slow way.

Night Ride, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen

A rare nocturne from yours truly. Actually when I started, it wasn't a nocturne. It was moody, but more like an overcast day. Too many of the elements were more visible, fighting for attention, and I was stuck. Darkness and shadow are wonderful devices to simplify a busy composition (I hesitate to even use that word because if it were actually composed I wouldn't have had the problem) and inject mystery and mood. I don't do too many nocturnes because I feel like I could easily become too dependent on the darkness as a device of convenience. And besides, I like painting daylight.

The Philosophers, 11 x 14, oil on linen

The red umbrellas,backlit figures, and strong silhouettes. Do I need anything more? This had all the elements of a strong atmospheric painting, it pretty much painted itself. The only thing that I had to really figure out was the value relationship between the foreground and the background. Light on dark, dark on light, or the same values. The shirts were light and the pants were dark, so by positioning the background shapes carefully, I could have all three relationships happening. It's just a couple of values so it's nothing tricky, but it worked really well. I was happy.

All of these paintings are on display at the Randy Higbee Gallery in Costa Mesa, CA. I am showing with my friends Simon Addyman and Tom Balderas, who are both very talented painters. we three have very different styles but together, the works create a kind of fascinating harmony. I drove down South for the opening this past weekend, and it was great to see them displayed so beautifully. 

The show is up for a few weeks, so if you're in the area, please check it out. It's a fantastic show!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Some Thoughts on Composition

The Regulars, 9 x 12, oil on linen

When you read about  composition in art books, you get all the usual advice about not putting a focal point smack in the middle of the canvas, dividing the canvas into thirds or fourths, the Golden Section, Fibonacci numbers, etc. Those are all good things to know,  (though frankly,  I don't know  why the Golden Section is significant nor do I know how to apply it to my work) but not always practical. 

You can crop a view so that the focal point falls on the third, but if doing so causes something else to fall where you don't want it to, it's not going to do much good.  When all is said and done, designing a painting is something the artist does to communicate his intent as best he can, and you can't do that by following a formula.  Composition must support the concept, and if it means tweaking value structure, colors, edges and application of paint to achieve that, then that's what we must do. In fact, tweaking is to weak a word. Design is a holistic, subjective activity, and not merely a matter of making small changes.

As I mentioned above, there are no formulas. But there are some really good practical tips about composition. Years ago I've scribbled a bunch of them on sticky notes and stuck them all over my easel to remind me. They don't necessary apply to every painting, but at the very least, they give me something to think about and design my paintings with more awareness and care.

-Unequal distribution of dark and light masses. Don't make them 50 - 50.
-Have one dominant color. Additional color masses need to be clearly lesser in visual impact.
-Use a variety of edges on every shape. Lose an edge on every shape if you can.
-Paint the concept, not things.
-Have a hierarchy of interesting areas.
-Manipulate this hierarchy with value contrast, hue choices, saturation, edges, opacity, impasto, brush activity, and textures.
-Big passive area vs. small active area
-You don't need two big passive areas. 
-If the focal point is in light, simplify the shadow. If it's in shadow, simplify the light.
-If the focal point is in light, lower the key. If it's in shadow, raise the key.
-Connect shapes wherever you can. (Same thing as losing edges) 
-Whenever you break a rule, make sure it looks intentional.
-Repetition and variation. Over do them. Then pull back.
-Less is more. 
 -Make Only One Statement! 

Some of these seem not to pertain strictly to composition, but in my mind, everything affects composition. If you are clear about what you want to say with your painting (the concept), and make sure everything you do supports this concept, and nothing you put in is irrelevant, you are  well on your way to designing good pictures.

Oh, and at the very top of my big studio easel, I have written in big black letters the word MYSTERY. It's a reminder for me not to put too much detail, information and identity (of the subject) into my painting. It helps me not to spell everything out for the viewer. It reminds me to paint clues, not answers, when I'm designing a picture.

I am currently waiting for the arrival of my new easel. The first thing I'm going to do is to christen it by writing MYSTERY across the top. I can't wait!