Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

She Disintegrates

Upon reading the last post, a reader asked me whether it would make sense to first paint the figure with a lot of information and then proceed to break it up, or would it be better to start with lots of abstraction and tighten up only where necessary.

Good question. if you ever find out, let me know!

Seriously, I don't know which works better. I do both ways, depending on whim, mostly. I do like my images to be driven by good drawing, so at some point –either at the very beginning or much farther into the process– I like to have the entire figure drawn convincingly. 

Most of the time I don't really get excited about rendering realistically, nor do I think it's relevant in what I do, but once in a while a certain level of realism creeps in. I suspect it's when I'm feeling a bit insecure that I start noodling, not knowing where to take it or how to express myself. 

I don't fight the impulse, for I know that if I keep going, sooner or later I'll have satisfied my doubts about painting "realistically" and then I'll get bored with it. Consequently abstraction and expression are inevitable. 

The painting I'm posting today is one such example. The very first stage, at the top of the page, was painted with a live model in a couple of hours. I don't remember why exactly I decided to paint her this way, but I had a rather rendered painting at the end of the session.

I have to stress that I don't normally paint this tightly. Only once in a while, just for kicks.

The seated pose didn't work too well, because I didn't do a good job placing the figure on the 12 x 9 panel, and her knees and her finger tips came too close to the edge, which bugged the hell out of me. 

My solution was to change her pose. As the seated figure was just one session with a model, this posed a bit of a challenge. The model's gone, and I have no reference photos or drawings. Can I change the pose without any refs? I didn't know, but I decided to try it. I mean what have I got to lose? It was already a loser, so no risk there. 

The new pose turned out ok. I only changed the lower part, and her arm, so it wasn't too drastic. The lighting was simple, so there was no need to make up a complex shadow pattern either.

At this point, I simplified the background and rendered the figure in a pre-impressionist glazey style. Still in the realist mindset, but not concerned about subtle skin tones. This is a more or less a monochromatic tonal rendition.

It's a simpler representation than rendering subtle warms and cools of the flesh, because all I'm doing is modulating value without dealing with temperature shifts. 

After letting the painting sit around for several weeks, I came back to it and started to introduce some abstraction. I was playing around with background patterns, (changed many times) and repainted the figure using opaque, patchy strokes.  The patchy shapes don't necessarily have anything to do with the form it sits on. I'm still controlling the values carefully, but I'm also intentionally not responding to the form with my strokes. It's harder to do than it sounds, especially if you've been trained to mind the form with stroke directions all these years.

But disconnecting my strokes from following the form, I found, is a significant way to move away from realism, while maintaining realism with values. Does that make sense?

This is where I am right now. I'm still fiddling with background, trying different colors. The figure is breaking up more and more, and the rate of change, if you will, is becoming faster as I become more and more comfortable with the idea of abstracting this particular figure.

It's a funny notion, that I have to become comfortable with abstraction each and every time I start a new painting. It's like going through the same journey of insecurity, tentative attempts, loss of control, and embracing risk over and over again.

I suppose I'm attracted to this maddening roller-coaster ride, and that's why I keep coming back to it.

This painting is not finished. I'm still fiddling with it. The next step is to try some bigger strokes in the background. As it is, the notes in the background seems too fussy.

After that, I'll reassess and see what else jumps out at me.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Process of a Painting: "Hours Slip Away"

 Hours Slip Away, 14 x 11 inches, oil on linen

So I think I mentioned that I'm doing a whole bunch of black and white studies using short-pose life drawings, right? And I think I also mentioned that I plan on using these studies to experiment, and hopefully develop some of these into something worth keeping and showing?

OK, so here is one of the first black and white studies that I took further, and as I really like how it turned out, I thought I'd share. 

This was B/W No.5. I'm not doing the take it further thing in order. I have sixty-something studies on my wall now, and I just picked this one at random.

This is the original drawing. It was probably a 10 minute drawing. Compared to the finished painting, the drawing shows a more dynamic gesture. It's easy to lose gesture when I get lost in the process. I do check it often and sometimes I fix it, as was the case with Galatea, but if I like the later gesture better, I keep going with it. 

I did like the gesture in the original, but the center of gravity was a little off and it bugged me, so I tried to fix that in the early stage.

This is the B/W study done from the drawing. Already I've taken it a bit further than just a straightforward representational study. Note the lost edges on her left shoulder, hair, left upper arm, and her thighs.

I'm always looking for opportunities to lose edges, and I try different areas throughout the process. Some areas need hard, crisp edges - I like to put those in areas where the silhouette defines the attitude of the pose, or a part of the pose.

In this case, her right arm and the torso's edge on that side (showing the bend) was a lot more informative and interesting than her left side, so I wanted to play up the edges on that side and subdue the left hand side.  I didn't obscure all of the left side, obviously, for I needed some information, but I didn't think it needed to be spelled out too clearly.

I kept working on it in black and white and various shades of gray, but at some point, I decided to go to color. I glazed a mixture of black, transparent oxide red, and Liquin on top of a dried surface. You can see that it creates a color direction instantly. It looks like a colorized photograph, which is a cool look, I guess, but I didn't want that for this painting. It's too easy. I thought I should struggle some more.

Her hair became dark instead of blonde, which gave more contrast up at the top. The dark mass at the top counterbalances the butt area, which was a bright target in the middle of the picture.

I like to juxtapose transparent areas with opaque areas, and whereas I really don't have a method or system as to where to go transparent and where to go opaque, lighter areas do tend to be painted opaque because I need to use white.

Here, I've started to work back into the figure itself, rendering some form in the lit area. Again, I don't have a specific method. I'm just mixing values and painting, trying to keep in mind the planes and the direction of the light source.

Typical for this kind of work (experimental, process, deconstructive, abstract), the background changes many times. I typically try both very light and very dark backgrounds, as well as combination of light and dark, and middle grays. I change my mind a lot, which is why these paintings take forever to do, even though they're small panels (14 x 11).

By this stage, I've painted and repainted all areas several times. I like to work a few hours at a time, letting the painting dry in between sessions. This gives me some mental distance from the painting too, so I can come back to it with a fresh set of eyes. 

I struggled a lot with the gesture of the legs. I didn't want as much gesture as the drawing, but I didn't want them to be static and symmetrical, either. I wanted them to be lost in the shadows, which meant they weren't going to have any rendered information. The silhouette had to do all the work, and they needed to look integrated into the background in a textural, expressive way, but at the same time, the silhouette had to be shaped extremely carefully.

I think this duality - precision vs. seemingly random expressive marks, is one of the main factors that attracts me to push abstraction in my paintings. 

Finally I had the shapes just how I wanted them, and I worked more on integrating the figure and the ground. I often lose too much  when I try to do this, and I have to redraw and repaint over and over. As inefficient as that seems, it's the only way I can get the surface quality and a sense of truth that I'm looking for.

I'm pretty happy with this one.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

I'm Unfaithful

Night Ride, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen

Unfaithful... to photo references, that is.

One of the most often asked questions is "do you use photo references?" And the answer is I do, for cityscapes. 

My landscapes are often done en plein air, or if it's a studio piece, I use plein air sketches as references, or I paint from memory (which might be more accurately describe as inventing a view. Also known as making stuff up).

For figurative work, I either paint using a model, or use drawings (5 - 15 minutes done from life) as references.

That is to say, I usually don't use photo references for landscapes or figurative work. But for cityscapes, I almost always do because often I can't set up my easel where I want, and there's not enough time to put down all the information I need, if I were to do it en plein air. (Which doesn't stop me from trying from time to time but usually I fail)

The thing that surprises a lot of people is how much I deviate from the reference. Check it out;

This is the reference I used for the painting. As you can see, I completely changed it.  To be sure, this one goes a little further away from the original photo than most, but it's not at all unusual for me to change this and move that to make the painting completely different from the photo.

I think one of the reasons is that my reference photos are usually just snapshots and not the highest quality - I don't even pretend to be a competent photographer - so I can hardly rely on my references being good compositions to begin with. That mindset liberates me and allows me to compose my pictures, using the photo only as a starting point, and to provide some structural information.

Also true is the fact that when I was at art school, I was studying to become an illustrator and my great fear was that out there in the real world, I might at some point get an assignment that I couldn't do, because I lacked the ability to create a mood, or lighting, or an environment or a situation without those perfect references photos. So I worked really, really hard at understanding how visual reality worked, so that hopefully, I'd at least be able to fake any situation that a client threw at me. 

What that did, basically, is to put me in a habit of  using any crappy photo and trying to make something out of it. Or make multiple variations addressing different issues from a single reference photo. That habit has become a core part of how I make paintings nowadays, and I'm kind of glad about that.

This photo is actually a crop of a larger view; a shot that I've made into another painting earlier. This was a nice view, and the painting was OK, but it's been done so many times by other artists that I found it difficult to make it into something uniquely mine. Iconic subject matter have that problem sometimes. Especially if it's a tourist destination. 

Cityscapes are difficult enough to paint without having to think about expressions of one's identity. I mean, there's all these interesting visual elements, any number of which could make a compelling focal point. In trying to make a single statement, we have to cherry pick what's important and what isn't, and create a clear hierarchy of visual importance on our canvases. Photo references don't have that subjective hierarchy because it shows everything with equal strength and importance, especially if the photo was taken by an amateur like me. 

As I painted a study for this painting, I started out fairly literally, and kept taking out information which I thought were not part of the main story. In frustration, sometimes I would paint out a whole section with broad, violent strokes of black, and in doing so, the painting became darker and darker. 

Soon it started to look like a night view. A-ha! Darkness is a wonderful device for simplification and creating mystery. Although I wasn't going for a nocturnal piece at first, I recognized a good thing when I stumbled upon it. 

Who cares if it looks nothing like the photo? Unless it's a commission piece where expectations are clearly spelled out, or if I'm trying to create a specific type of imagery, I leave myself wide open to accidents and meandering processes. I believe that it's very important to be able to paint what you initially envision, but I also believe, when appropriate, that getting lost in the process and allowing accidents and discovery to lead the way, is a great way to work.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Transparent Water

Painting water is challenging. It's generally a good idea to focus on one of the three characteristics; movement, reflectivity, and transparency. Often we see more than one of these characteristics simultaneously, but I think it makes sense to play up just one, and subordinate the others because making a single statement almost always makes for a stronger painting.  

Not saying you can't have more than one in your painting. Just saying emphasize one, and deemphasize the others, lest your impact be - ahem - watered down. (Sorry! too much wine!)

I'll just talk about the transparency today.  There's really no trick to it. If you just paint the values and the colors that you see, you will have a pretty good depiction of transparent water. The problem is we have a hard time ignoring the thingness of things and seeing just colors and values. We tend to think, "oh that's a rock. so it must be this color." or "it's water, so I have to mix a blue". 

If you can see color and value without thinking about what it is you're looking at somehow, that would be helpful. Easier said than done, right? You can learn to do this, but it does take a lot of practice. There are some things you can do to force the eye into seeing abstractly. Like looking at the view upside down by bending down and viewing through your legs. You'll look pretty silly but hey, who needs dignity when you're learning? 

You can try not looking at the object directly, but use your peripheral vision to determine the color of the object. Or make your sight go out of focus. Take off your glasses if you wear them. You can also blink your eyes repeatedly like strobe lights. You can "scan" the view by moving your head from side to side and taking in the color but avoiding focusing on any one object. You can look through a small hole in a neutral colored piece of cardboard, isolating the color.

All these techniques are intended to disengage the mind from thinking about the thingness of the things you're intending to paint and just take in the color and value information.

But after you are able to see and determine the colors of all the things that need to go into the picture, you still have to paint them.

The way I approach it is fairly organized. I wouldn't call it a formula because it's too general to be one, but it's logical nonetheless. Like everything else I do, I try to establish a broad contextual relationship first. That means blocking it (the water) in, with an average color of the water (don't think water. Just think color and value), or a few colors that makes a simple gradation. In the paintings I'm showing on this post, the gradations might be made from a dark mossy green to an ochre-ish color.  I try to keep it very simple - nothing more than a block in. 

Also important is that all the other elements (trees, shoreline) are blocked in too. The major "areas" have to work together, especially value-wise, so it's crucial to establish these relationship at an early stage. In other words, I don't just work on the water and hope to do the rest of it later. 

And then I look for submerged rocks and define them by indicating their shadows. What color are they? Well, since I approach my paintings tonally, the first thing I might do, is to just mix a darker version of the color of the water block-in. And then determine whether it's a little warmer or a little cooler, and make subtle adjustments by mixing a darker red or a darker blue, and draw them in. 

Often I see that some shadows look warmer than others, so I make sure they're not all the same. Also, I don't copy the rocks as I see them. I take cues from what's there, but I don't hesitate to change shapes, sizes, and locations so as to redesign my underwater rock garden. 

I mean, I think it's nice to be able to paint them exactly as they are, but I think it's nicer to end up with a compelling composition.

Oh, and these darks are painted fairly thinly, with transparent or semi-transparent pigments (Trans. Oxide Red + Ultramarine, for example). Dark areas like these represent shadows, cracks, and holes where light is not reaching, so I want these areas to be quiet and subordinate to the lit areas surrounding them. In juxtaposing thicker, opaque paint against thin transparent paint, the thicker paint will stand out more, while the thinly painted areas recede, (not talking about distance here. I'm just talking about whether an area jumps out at the viewer, demanding attention, or not)  so I want to take advantage of these characteristics and paint dark, quiet areas with thin, transparent colors. 

Once the shadows are in, we can see the rocks. Now we can differentiate each rock from its surrounding color by painting it in a color/value that is a variation of the original block-in color. If it's sunny, these rocks may be lighter, but that also depends on the local color/value of the rocks themselves, so they may be darker. You just have to look and make that determination individually. 

Some of the rocks may be sticking out of water, and these are often significantly lighter than its submerged parts. They make great accents or punctuations in the composition, so I place them carefully, trying different positions, quantity, sizes, and shapes. Mother Nature didn't put these accents in the water with our paintings in mind, so they don't necessarily make the best compositional devices if we paint them literally. 

On these above-water rocks, especially if the water is moving, we see darker values where it's wet but not submerged, right where water's surface meets the rock. To make sure they look wet, we have to make careful value shifts in this area. Often this dark wet areas have sharp edges. 

So if we break down the color/value variations on a single boulder, we have 1)dry lit areas, 2)wet above-water lit areas, 3)dry shadow areas, 4)wet above-water shadow areas, 5)submerged lit area, and 6)submerged shadow area.  And that's not even counting halftones and planar shifts.  Of course, we can simplify it as much or as little as we can get away with. The amount of small variations we put on each rock would depend on its context, and the artist has to make those decisions based on whether more or less information helps or hurts the painting.

There are often very bright, small, sharp highlights where the water's surface touches the rock, too, as small waves reflect the sun directly into our eye. These highlights are really effective, but if you overdo them, they look hokey, so use them sparingly.

That might be a good segue into talking about reflections, but that's another day's post. This post kinda got long winded already. If you have read this far, thanks for your patience!!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Moving Targets En Plein Air

I painted this on site during this year's Sonoma Plein Air Festival. I had my easel set up across the street from this cafe, and painted this in about an hour and a half.

As I was working, a few people stopped by to watch and they all asked how am I painting moving people? If it's a non-artist asking, there's usually some joking around; "Gotta be pretty quick, huh?" or "did you pay those people to sit still?"  Every time I include people in my plein air street scenes, I hear these comments at least once during the painting process.  I groan inside but I don't want to be rude, so I just laugh like it was the first time I've heard anyone make that joke.

But sometimes an artist will stop by and ask how to do it. And I explain to him that each figure is a composite of a bunch instantaneous impressions. The people sitting and drinking coffee at the tables don't move a whole lot (relatively speaking) so they're not too bad, but the waiter coming and going is a little tricky.

When you think about it, all painting is done from memory. You look up, you take in the information, commit to memory, and you look away. You can't see both the subject and your palette / panel at the same time, after all.

I try to focus on gesture, above all. Sure, you need information on light and shadow, colors and values, not to mention shapes and scales, but the gesture is the one thing that's fleeting and it's the one thing that communicates movement, a sense of life.

Because the waiter's job is repetitive, he'll strike a similar pose again and again, allowing me to study his posture each time, and make adjustments to my efforts.When I'm focusing on gesture, I look at the figure and try to memorize the general shape and flow of the main parts of the body. I try to draw to communicate what the figure is doing, not what he looks like. And this mind set is key. What is the back doing? What is the arm doing? Which foot is supporting the weight?

Also, when I'm focusing on gesture, I'm not thinking about color. When I'm thinking about color, I'm not thinking about gesture. These things can be done on separate glances. If I had to think about gesture and color at the same time (and value and edges and opacity and viscosity and texture and...) I'd just get confused.

But when all is said and done, the only way to get good results is... you guessed it, practice. Practice your short-pose gesture drawing constantly! Go to open sessions and do short pose (1 to 20 minutes) drawings at least once a week. On other days, you can practice in your sketchbook as you sit in a coffee shop or in your car waiting to pick up your kids. Or whatever.

Or you can take a photo. But I'm sure I don't have to tell you, it's an entirely different experience. There is this immediacy in working from direct observation that is immensely enjoyable and satisfying.

Even if the painting doesn't turn out, I get a kick out of trying to paint moving subjects.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Figure Studies in Black and White

Hey everyone~ I'm back! This has been the longest break in my blogging, ever! I can explain, but I'm not going to, because that would be a boring read.  Instead, let's just continue as if there was no break.

OK, so I had this brilliant idea to assign homework to my students in the figure drawing / painting class, which was to take a drawing done from life, 5 to 20 minute pose, and using it, do a black and white study in oil. 

It turned out to be a great exercise because it allows the student to work with paint and focus on values without being overwhelmed by color. It is hard enough learning to control values,  understanding the principles of light and shadow, rendering form, and just plain getting know how paint behaves. Addition of color just complicates the problem exponentially. I really think that it's not a bad idea to lay off color till you have a good command of all that other stuff. 

So I assigned this exercise to my class and we agreed it was very instructive. So I proposed that everyone should do a hundred of these. No deadline, just work at your own pace. The requirements were, that you had to use a short-pose drawing done from life as reference. Why? Because we all need more drawing practice. And, if we draw these 5 to 20 minute quick sketches with this assignment in mind, I thought, we are more likely to include the important information like gesture, light/shadow pattern and shadow edge indication, and leave out less important details and tedious rendering.

Not everyone in my class feels like they can put enough information down on paper in 5 to 20 minutes, so I'm also allowing drawings by Old Masters as references, but only if the student doesn't have his or her own drawings to work with. The point of the exercise is not to complete show-worthy pretty paintings in black and white, but to practice and learn.

Photos are not allowed as references, because unless the student is already adept at drawing from life, he'll just be copying values, and he won't be doing the seeing and analyzing necessary in translating a three dimensional object in space, onto a two-dimensional surface. It's a different way of seeing and thinking, so for what we are doing, I don't think photo references are very effective. 

Anyway, since I'm expecting people to do a hundred of these B/W studies, I figured I have to do 'em too, if only to show that I'm willing to walk the walk. 

So I've been doing that all summer, and I'm up to no. 60. Somewhere around number 45, we started using limited palette in the painting class, so I assigned extra studies. Do one in B/W only, and do another from the same reference, but using the palette used in class. (Black, White, Transparent Oxide Red for the first couple of times)  Needless to say, my production of B/W's slowed down because I'm having to do the brown ones too. But I'm not counting the brown ones as a part of the 100. 

Below is a typical sequence. Although I don't have a method that I rigidly follow and I do experiment with different approaches, this is one basic way to do a B/W study.

This is my reference. It's a 10 minute drawing on toned paper, using Sanguine and white pencils.

The information, as far as rendering form goes, is minimal. I've indicated the light and shadow pattern, Form shadow and cast shadow edges, a little bit of value shifts in the light side. The rest is gesture, described in line work.

 On loosely toned canvas, I started by drawing with a small brush, using black only. At the start I want to keep things very transparent, so I'm avoiding white. I also indicate where the shadows are, and block them in with black only. I'm using solvent (Gamsol) to thin the paint so it doesn't go on so dark and opaque.

The opaque block-in goes on top. First I have one light gray for all the lights, and one dark gray for all the shadows. (Except hair, which I saw as a separate dark mass).  After I blocked in the light side with one gray, I hit the highlights with a much lighter gray. This is essentially the value structure I have in the original reference; the white chalk represents the highlight areas within the light side.

Defining the halftone areas (darkest part of the light side, typically just before the form turns into the shadow side.) and starting to soften some edges so that the forms turn.

Also beginning to put some paint down on the fabric.

Here I've introduced a dark background, blocked in the foreground and began defining the folds in the  foreground. On the figure, the transitions from one value into another has become softer. I'm starting to manipulate the hierarchy of highlight strengths, so that I have a clear primary focal point, and other highlights of lesser strengths. This is a simple yet effective device to tell the viewer where to look.

And this is as far as I took this study. You can see how the strongest light is on her hip, and it drops away as we move farther away from that spot, creating a theatrical effect. 

I confess I have an ulterior motive for doing these studies. After just a few of these, I thought these studies would make excellent under paintings for later experimentation and process. I'm hoping to go back into each one of these studies, and develop at least some of them into more finished paintings. 

I'll show you more next time~