Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Sunday, July 12, 2015


I received a request to talk about brushstrokes (Tom B., this one's for you!), so here goes~

When I'm teaching, one of the most common problems I see is that of muddy colors. This usually happens in conjunction with overworked surfaces with strokes which have little expression, intention, or meaning. 

Most of the time, the student assumes poor color mixing is to blame, ("my colors don't look right!") and this may indeed be true, but often the problem may not be in how he made his color mixing decisions, but in how he applied the color onto his canvas. 

When we're painting wet into wet, we can't avoid picking up some of the colors already on the canvas surface as we make contact with the brush loaded with new color. If we keep dabbing or stroking at the surface with this same loaded brush, each subsequent contact will have less of the intended new color that we mixed on the palette, but more of the combined mixture of the new color and whatever the brush picked up in the previous dabs. 

Obviously, this "combined color" isn't what we intended.  (We are not talking about intentionally mixing colors on canvas here - that's a totally different technique) And it's easy to see how this happens. Surprisingly, many students just keep on dabbing, licking (mindlessly stroking the same spot over and over on auto-pilot) and "smoothing" out the area in an attempt to fix or hide the mistake. (Been there, done that. Thousands of times.)

Having identified the problem, this solution doesn't make any sense, does it? 

So what do we do? We have to figure out how to avoid this "combined color", and only put down the intended new color. (the color you actually mixed on the palette)  

The answer seems pretty logical; one, avoid picking up the existing color on the canvas surface, and two, if you do pick up some of the existing color, don't keep putting it back into the painting. 

The second part is extraordinarily simple. Whenever you pick up unwanted color, clean your brush!  Yes, that might mean cleaning the brush after every stroke and reloading with fresh paint. But if you use both sides of a flat or a filbert brush, you should at least be able to get two strokes before wiping it clean. 

It's easy to forget to clean the brush when your new color is so closely related to the existing color, because they're so harmonious, the mixture doesn't look muddy, or even wrong. But if the two colors are further apart in hue and/or value, it gets mucky pretty quickly. So you see, "Clean your brush often" and "Put it down, and leave it alone" go hand in hand.

Now let's talk about avoiding picking up of the existing color on the canvas. If you're painting wet into wet, it's pretty much impossible not to pick up at least a tiny bit of it every time you touch canvas. So it comes down to trying to pick up as little as possible. 

First, take a look at how your brush is angled when you apply your strokes. Is it nearly perpendicular, like this? 

If so, notice only the tip of the brush makes contact at first, and if you want to transfer the paint on the rest of the brush onto the canvas, you have no choice but to push the brush against the canvas, and into the wet paint, like this; 

You can't avoid picking up a lot of the paint from the surface because you're pretty much jamming your brush into it. And even if you do clean your brush after every stroke, whatever expression you get from such a stroke is going to reflect that heavy-handedness. Does that make sense? 

What if you were to hold your brush at a much more acute angle, almost flat against the canvas, like this;

This will allow your brush to make contact with the canvas with more surface area, more paint, and without jamming the tip into the wet surface. That means minimal disturbance of the existing surface. You'll still pick up some paint from the canvas, but because you're not digging into it, you'll be putting down the new color on top of the old color, not into it. With a loaded brush, and if the wet paint on the canvas is thin enough you can get quite a few more strokes in without getting any "combined color" to muck it up.

The other great benefit of holding the brush at an acute angle is the range of expression that you can get. By moving the brush side to side and skimming over the wet surface, you can get some really nice irregular-looking calligraphic expression.

I do have to stress that this is just one aspect of using the brush to apply paint. There are times you do want to hold your brush perpendicularly to the canvas. There are times you do want to jam the brush into wet paint and mush it around. There are times you do want that "combined color", especially if you're looking for a transition between two colors, or a beautiful broken color note.  There's no one right way,  except in the specific context of what you want to achieve with any given note.

So here's a list for ya, (because we all like lists :-D)

  • Load your brush with paint. (Don't skimp!)
  • Hold your brush nearly flat against the canvas.
  • Don't hold your brush perpendicularly to the canvas. 
  • Don't push the canvas with your brush. Don't stab it. Don't jam it.
  • Use only enough pressure to take paint off the brush without disturbing the wet surface.
  • If you pick up existing color, clean your brush immediately and reload.
  • That may mean you only have one or two strokes per load, especially if the surface already has a lot of paint, or if you don't have enough paint on the brush.
  • A very, very light touch!
  • You can move your brush every which way to get different kinds of strokes. Experiment, practice and be familiar with what it can do.
  • No licking. (mindlessly going over the same stroke over and over while you think about what to do next. If painting were a verbal language, this is the same as repeating "um....um.... um..."
  • Put it down, leave it alone.
  • If you do notice that the color you put down is wrong, scrape it off. Don't try to hide the error by mushing it into the surface.
  • Once again with the verbal language analogy; Each stroke is a word. Enunciate each word. Say it like you mean it. Make sure you have the right word before you say it.
  • Strokes show intention, so have one. If you're unsure, that shows, too. Perhaps more than you wish to reveal.

Sorry to bore you with the repeated plug, but I can show you exactly how this is done in the context of your own painting...and other ways of using the brush and the knife, too, if you come to my workshop in Michigan in September! Please follow this link for more info: Michigan workshop.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Suggesting Light and Shadow on Foliage

Often, when we are sketching en plein air, we have very limited amount of time to put down on canvas what we want to take home. There's never enough time to faithfully copy all the intricate shapes that we see before us. (Who wants to copy anyway?)

So we have to simplify, and still manage to capture the character of whatever it is we're painting. In school, the instructors talk about visualizing a complex object as made up of fewer, simple geometric solids. For many a student, this is a puzzling concept. Sometimes the trees become oversimplified and end up looking like lollipops - you know what I'm talking about.

I think that in order to do this well, first you have to have an understanding of how light, shadow and form are related. You should be fairly adept at painting the simple solids like spheres and cones out of your head. Otherwise, translating a complex tree form into a simpler one without looking simplistic, is difficult, if not impossible. 

Once you have command of painting spheres out of your head, practice painting full, densely foliaged trees. The denser the foliage, the the easier it is to see form. 

Imagine the entire tree as one form, and noting where the light source is, indicate the lit side and the shadow side. It's like painting a sphere in the color of the foliage. Make sure the color of the light side is warmer and lighter than the shadow side. 

If you are mixing your lit side color by lightening the value of the shadow side, be careful; if you just mix white into your shadow color, it'll get lighter, yes, but it won't be warmer, so you won't have a "sunlit" tree; the light will be too cool, and will appear "chalky". Make sure to reach for your yellows first, then if you need to lighten up further, add tiny amounts of white at a time.

Now comes the good part. Just as you imagined the entire tree as a simple solid, you want to imagine smaller masses within the tree in the same way. imagine a clump of foliage as a lopsided sphere (chances are, foliage masses won't look like perfect spheres) and indicate light and shadow on it.

Repeat the process on another clump of foliage, and keep going until you have sufficiently broken up the tree into a more natural, complex looking mass than when you started. 

You don't want to neglect the overall silhouette of the tree, for that has a lot of impact on the character of the tree, but that's another day's post.

With practice, and using what you actually see as reference only, you'll be able to suggest light and shadow on tree masses pretty convincingly pretty quickly, freeing up your time for other important things like... the rest of the painting. 

In the examples I'm showing on this post, I hope you can see the lumps of foliage as I picked them out and lit them. I hope you can see that it's just a matter of identifying the lumps, and simply identifying the lit side and shadow side of each lump. 

Just where are these lumps on a tree? You can use the tree in front of you as reference, you can use your imagination, or you can use a combination of both. 

If you get adept at using your imagination to identify these lumps, you'll find that you can paint trees out of your head - which is obviously a very handy skill. 

I have to warn you, that in order to go beyond the generic, you really have to study and be familiar with specific species and their characteristics. The deeper your knowledge about the subject, the better you'll represent it.

The same exact technique can be used to paint clouds.  Not the thin, wispy ones with no discernible shadows, but the dense thunderheads with clear light and shadow patterns.

So as you can see, this technique not only helps to quickly indicate light and shadow patterns on trees and clouds, but it really is a fundamental skill in painting stuff out of your head. (Or if you want to sound more impressive, paint from memory

But in order to design clouds and trees to suit your composition (because again, copying will only get you so far) , you have to be able to re-shape them and still light them convincingly. Knowing how to reduce complex forms into simpler solids will make this possible.

Homework for ya; Try painting a few eggs out of your head.  Then try painting them green. Then try making the shape of the egg a little irregular, with broken and soft edges. Try putting that in a landscape. Let me know how it goes~

If you want me to show you, why not come join me in Michigan for a three day workshop in September? We'll be painting on the beautiful grounds of the Franciscan Life Process Center in Lowell, MI. I'll be talking about this, and everything else I can think of about the art of landscape painting!

You can sign up by going to the Center's workshop page.