Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Monday, September 21, 2015

Plein Air Sketch - Bainbridge Island Demo

Well it's been forever since my last post! Sorry about that, it's been a super busy summer and I have been occupied elsewhere. Right now I'm working on putting together a group of paintings for an upcoming show - more on that later - but I couldn't neglect Studio Notes any longer! 

As usual I struggled to come up with an idea for a post - then I remembered that during my workshop on Bainbridge Island a few months ago, I did a demo and my friend Carolyn who was attending the workshop, kindly took some shots of the process. 

So this post is that demo-I will try and talk about each step. 

The picture above shows our location on the Puget Sound. It was a beautiful day-a little chilly, but perfect for painting. I chose this view because I wanted to include a building or some other man made structure in my demo, mainly so that I can talk about drawing and perspective, and it's much easier to show the light and shadow separation on a solid geometric structure than on a organic, textured surface like foliage.

After figuring out my composition in a thumbnail (of which I don't have a photo- sorry) I proceeded to tone the canvas panel lightly with Transparent Oxide Red + Ultramarine + Gambol. I brushed this thin mixture on the canvas and wiped most of it off. The main purpose of toning the canvas is to kill the white of the canvas so that I am not judging subtle colors or values in an extreme context. 

Sometimes an artist will tone the canvas as a strategy to create harmony, or if done in a complementary color (red tone to go under green grass, for example) to create a visual "vibration", but in my case, it's just to kill the white.

On this surface I started to draw my design with the same mixture, using a small (no.1 or no.2) brush.   My underdrawing is not super tight, but I do try to get it reasonably accurate. 

Next, I used the same mixture but varying the amount of Gambol to do a sort of a three-value grisaille. The goal here is to represent the view in just a few (usually three or four) values so as reduce the complex visual reality down to a simple, organized image. 

You can see that the entire background group of trees is reduced to one dark mass. Compare against the top photo to see what I mean. See how I ignored the individual trees and color / value variations? If you consider that the purpose of these trees is  to serve as a simple backdrop for the buildings, it begins to make sense that they don't need to be defined so much. When a simple mass will do the job, why complicate the matter? True, some variations and activity back there would help to create a more believable environment, but I can do that later. At this point my aim is simple organization.

Next I switched to opaque colors and started in on the building, simply blocking in the light and shadow sides. Here I want to define the relationship between light and shadow in terms of value, color and temperature. As this is a direct sun situation, I wanted to make sure the light side is a little bit warmer than the shadow side. 

This is not a high-key impressionist painting, so I'm not emphasizing the color of the light. That is to say, the light side and the shadow side of the building don't show a big jump in color. Both are just slight variations of the local color.  This is important because I've just made a conscious choice to paint this more tonally than Impressionist-color approach, and I must maintain this way of relating light and shadow throughout the painting. If I do a tonal approach in one area of the painting but change my mind and "push color" a la Impressionists in another, the painting will not work. 

 I blocked in the roof. After the initial grisaille, 97% of the painting is done opaquely. The only areas where I would use transparent application are the really dark areas where I can't see any detail or color. Now, before you start arguing that you can see color in the very dark areas, please remember that I've already established the tonalist language here, and I am speaking only in that context.

I blocked in the foreground and the trees in the back. As you can see the trees now have some variations, but the values are close enough so that if you squint the entire tree mass still groups together to form a simple backdrop. Note, too, that the variations that I put in my painting - nor the shapes of the trees for that matter - do not conform to the actual view. I'm not interested in copying what I see because that's not important. What's important is that they serve to support my "star".  I do want them to look like trees, but beyond that, the details are not relevant to my main statement.

So the point here is that as long as they look convincing they don't need to be copied. Therefore, I am free to manipulate this element to maximize my statement. For example, see in the top photo, how close the value of the trees are to that of the roof? In my painting, I made the separation greater to give more impact to my statement. If you didn't know what it actually looked like, you wouldn't know or care, would you. So tweak away to make a more effective statement!

I added the sky, some details on the buildings and the blue crane thing, worked on the water, and tied up most of the loose ends.

Oh, I forgot to mention that a little earlier the tide had started to rise. It didn't get nearly as high as how I painted it, but I took cues from the rising tide and made up the foreground.

I used a knife's edge to knock in some of the really sharp notes like the railing.

The pilings are my attempt at suggesting what they looked like, not actually measured and placed carefully. Again, I wanted them to be recognizable, but tediously copying them in their exact places were not necessary for my purposes. Nor relevant.

I lightened the water and added some saturation. Also the reflection of the boathouse was knocked in. Here I tried to keep it somewhat subdued. It's always tempting to emphasize reflections in the water because it makes the water look more like water. It's also easy to overdo it, too. It's important to remember what your main statement is, and if the reflection supports that statement or if the reflection is the statement, by all means emphasize it. But if it's just a bit player in your picture, you don't want it to be so loud that it takes away from the star. I need to think like a conductor or a director and orchestrate the various players in my painting so that I may make the best music possible. 

Just as I made the reflection a little quieter, I lessened the impact that the tree line makes against the sky, by darkening the sky a bit. I didn't want a big value contrast there because that would definitely take away from the focal area. Having a softer, non-geometric edge helps, too. 

This demo took a little over an hour. Sometimes a sketch this size takes two or three hours. Other times, half an hour. For a workshop demo, I try to control the amount of time I take, and I force myself to stop at a certain time lest the students don't have enough time to paint. But I'm not always successful and sometimes in my haste I crash and burn. Which is humiliating so I try to avoid that situation(Haha~). This time it went well and I was able to cover a lot of ground in a short time.

The panel I used is Classen's No.66 oil primed linen mounted onto a piece of MDF board. This is my favorite surface.

The colors are as follows:

Blues: Ultramarine, Cerulean, and Ivory Black
Yellows: Cad Lemon, Cad Deep, and Yellow Ochre
Reds: Cad Red Light (or Permanent Red), Alizarin, and Transparent Oxide Red
White: Titanium white.
I usually don't have tube greens, oranges or violets.

If you have any questions, please use the comment box - I will try to answer them if I can!


  1. Terry, your posts are always worth waiting for! As usual, this one is a little workshop in a box...chock full of great tips and thoughtful comments in a small space. Thanks once again.
    And while I hate to focus on equipment (if I only had THAT brush / color / pochade box I could be a decent painter!), I have to ask about those colorful little bush "clips". I've never seen anything like them before. Is that a homemade solution or something commercially available? If I had those, maybe my brushes wouldn't be full of grass and dirt and I could be a decent painter!!

    1. Thanks Bruce~! Those little brush holders - I found them years ago at Utrecht, in one of those little bins next to the cash register - along with other little knick-knacky stocking stuffers. They're really handy, but I haven't seen them at the art supply store since, nor do I know who makes them. One of the students at a recent workshop said you can find them at a hardware store, but I haven't checked.

  2. Hi Terry,
    Every time I receive a Studio Notes email I know I am going to learn something new that I can use. I also print out all your postings, three-hole punch them and keep them in a binder for future reference. So thank you for all you have contributed to me and to others on our journey to becoming better artists.
    I am also subscribed to James Gurney's blog and he has talked about fugitive paint colors. I see you mention having Alizarin on your palette, which is on the fugitive list and, in fact, is probably one of the least permanent colors of the bunch. Since you have so much experience with materials I'm sure this is not news to you and so I am curious about your thoughts on this matter.

    1. Thanks Wendy~ Yes, Alizarin isn't very good at keeping its color. I use Alizarin Permanent, which is supposedly better.

      I like to have Alizarin on my palette but it's probably used the least of all the colors on my palette. Half the time, I don't even touch it. When I do use it, it's very little amount - like a head of a matchstick. So I haven't really had big issues. From time to time I try out a different cool red, just for kicks, but I haven't really needed much of it.

  3. Although all of my attention should be on the composition itself, (and it is a great looking painting) what I noticed is also about brushes. It appears that you did the whole demonstration using only two brushes. Is that correct?

    1. Three brushes. a no.1 (or no.2), a no.6, and a no.8, all bristle flats. I probably just used the no.8 to tone the canvas on this one. I'm of the school of "fewer brushes, clean more often." Rather than "many brushes, one for each color (or some other purpose".

      I've tried the multiple brush method, but I get confused and spend way too much time looking at which is the right one.

  4. Another great demo, thanks Terry. Extends the workshop experience! Glad to see an update to your blog, looking forward to more.

    1. Thanks Joe~! I'll try not to wait four months to do another one :-D