First person insights on the hearts and minds of famous artists of the past are rare.
Thanks to his prolific letter writing (almost daily) to his brother, Theo, we know more about Vincent Van Gogh than any other artist throughout history. We know about his struggles with poverty and sanity. We’re privy to his hopes and dreams. We learn of his relationships with other artists and neighbors, but most importantly we have a front row seat of his creative process, on a granular level: his goals, failures, successes, and his approach to painting on a technical level. Marvelous…if you haven’t read his letters, do so…what a treat to share the journey with this troubled creative genius.
Be warned, I initially walked away not liking Vincent as a person very much: the constant whining and complaining, his continuous begging for more funds from his younger brother, but I’ve since learned of the details of his arrangement with Theo. The paintings Vincent created belonged to Theo…Vincent shipped them off to his brother, in bundles, once they were dry enough to travel and they were to remain Theo’s, until Vincent could return the funds he’d borrowed to support his creative efforts, in full.
Over the weekend, I viewed artist interviews on YouTube, here and there, whenever I took breaks to cool down and rehydrate during my brush clearing efforts (it’s that time of year again, up here in the Sierras). I ended up viewing a lot of David Hockney interviews and discovered how many with this artist were up there.
Mr. Hockney is a favorite of mine, he was recognized and successful at an early age. He’s thoughtful, loquacious and, at age 81, has accumulated quite a catalog of video interviews. The sessions run the gamut of his career, he was interviewed at the beginning, in his 20’s and 30’s, across the decades, right up to the present.
I was struck by the similarity of this collection and Van Gogh’s letters. The videos document David Hockney’s thoughts, opinions, working methods, etc., across his career, who he was at the beginning, his evolution over the years and who he is now.
What a gift to artists! Hockney isn’t alone. Through catalogs like YouTube, you can gain incite into the workings of all the major artists of our times.
We’ve all dreamed of being a painter during one of the great historical art movements: Impressionism, Post Impressionism, Romanticism, Modernism, even the Renaissance. What would it have been like to have been a guest at the Medici estate during the Italian Renaissance, to sit around a table sharing conversation over a glass of absinthe with the likes of Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Monet and Degas or to have attended a party in Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Picasso and Matisse?
As artists working in the 21st Century we’ve come to take for granted all the art conveniences we avail ourselves of each day. Painters of the past didn’t have it as good!
Take, for example, our box of paints. Not only are they highly portable (up until the middle 19th century they were traditionally stored in ram’s bladders), but the variety of available colors and the pigment’s permanence makes this a great time to be an artist.
Take a look at the mineral color palette to which artists of the Classic period (through the first half of the 19th Century) were limited (thanks to Gamblin Artists Oil Color for all these palette graphics).
Driven by a need for pigments in commercial industry, the Industrial Revolution developed abilities to fuse inorganic materials, such as cadmium, cobalt, and chromium together at high heat, greatly widening the spectrum of available colors for artist. The permanence of these new highly intense colors was not always great. Here’s a comment from Vincent Van Gogh about the problem, in one of his letters to his brother Theo, “All the colours that Impressionism has made fashionable are unstable. […] all the more reason boldly to use them too raw, time will only soften them too much.”*
Organic chemistry, in the 20th Century brought new pigments into existence (Hansa Yellow, Phthalo Blues and Greens, Napthol and Perylene Reds, Quinaquidones, Dioxazine Violet, Hue and Permanent versions). The new colors may look similar to those from the industrial revolution, but many boast better permanence and the new colors retain their chroma when changed in value, through mixing with white or other colors, which is not the case with older ones, they lose chroma as their value is changed.
While we’re on the subject of new colors and color substitutes, have you ever wondered what the descriptive “Hue” meant on a tube of paint, such as in Cerulean Blue Hue? The Hue versions are generally much less expensive than the original. This is because Hue versions have substituted multiple, often less expensive pigments to simulate the color, rather than using the traditional pigment. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as often the Hue version will use more permanent or less toxic pigments in this simulation. Read the available information about the color, understand the details before you buy.
All things considered, we’re living in a great time to be a painter!
* This emphasizes the importance, today, of understanding the permanence of the pigments you’re using. That information is usually available on painting manufacturer’s websites, is available behind the “pigment info” tab accessed by clicking the paint color identifying number on the Dick Blick website and if all else fails, at the end of a Google search. More stable substitutes are available today for many of the less permanent colors, such as Alizarin Crimson Permanent in place of Alizarin Crimson.
Through Gamblin Artists Colors I learned of a fascinating new project they’re involved in with artist and activist John Sabraw and Ohio State University. I found out about this new project in the Gamblin newsletter. I’ve been transitioning to Gamblin oil paints over the last few years, since I learned of all they’re doing to make painting materials safer for the artist and the environment.
If you’re unfamiliar with Gamblin, I suggest you become familiar with them. You can visit their website at https://www.gamblincolors.com, but here’s a brief overview of their founder, Robert Gamblin and his company.
Mr. Gamblin began his career as a pigment creator, working for the Smithsonian. He’d been hired to recreate paints for the organization’s art restorers that matched the formulas of the pigments originally used on the works they were bringing back to life. This led to a thorough investigation of the makeup of artist colors through history. I’m guessing he was shocked by the toxic ingredients of many of these historical pigments and surprised by the fact that today’s modern artists colors weren’t all that much better.
At any rate, after his time with the Smithsonian he decided to start a company to make artist’s materials and, in turn, their studios a safer place. Gamblin Artist Colors has accomplished much towards this goal with many of THEIR versions of traditional colors free enough of toxins to be packaged without the traditional warning labels. Their turpentine substitute, Gamsol, is virtually orderless and much less toxic than Turpenoid. They’ve developed a line of solvent free painting mediums and to help keep toxic pigments out of the landfills, they suck escaping pigment dust from the air during the paint making process, turn it into paint and give it away free, as Torrit Grey, a grey made up of all the colors of the rainbow (a bit different with each batch).
Now Gamblin is working on a Kickstarter project with John Sabraw and Ohio State, where they’ll take water polluted by toxic coal mine drainage, which kills aquatic life in streams and waterways worldwide (1,300 miles of these polluted waterways in Ohio alone), remove the toxins from the water, neutralize it and turn the product into pigments and paints. With the sulphuric acid and heavy metals removed the clean water is returned to its original location where it can now support aquatic life.
During their process the captured heavy metals are reduced to iron oxides. This now non-toxic orange colored iron oxide is set aside to be dried and ground for use as a pigment. They’ve found if they heat the pigment 1000 degrees, it becomes a deep red. Heat it 2000 degrees and it become a beautiful red-violet. It’s this red-violet that Gamblin is turning into a limited edition artist oil color they’ve named, Reclaimed Earth Violet.
With our federal government currently relaxing pollution regulations for coal miners to reanimate this dying industry, this project seems well timed!
A few months, maybe a year ago, a painter friend, Diane Stewart, turned me on to the “In the Studio” series of videos presented by the “Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)” on YouTube. They’re hosted by Corey D’Augustine, an art historian, art restorer and painter in his own right.
Mr. D’Augustine hosts a series that brings all his talents to force as, before your eyes, he creates paintings in the style of major figures from Modern painting movements, explaining what they were attempting to achieve, their materials of choice , how they used them and much, much more along the way…fascinating! Every so often, he takes a break from painting to answer questions sent in by viewers. There’s much to be learned during these sessions.
Two things I recently learned from Corey turned things a little upside-down for me: information about varnishing a painting and working with acrylic paints.
I’d always accepted that varnishing a finished oil or acrylic painting was necessary to protect it from ultraviolet light damage, the elements and pollution and that a removable varnish should always be used. This way if/when a painting became dirty, it would be the varnish layer, not the painting surface itself that collected the dirt. At that point the varnish could be removed, restoring the quality of the painting’s original surface appearance and a new, clean layer of varnish could be applied to continue the protection. I’ve even mapped out the proper contemporary methods for applying that varnish to both oil and acrylic paintings, for readers, in this very blog.
Mr. D’Ausgustine sunk the varnishing myth, sharing that it’s just as easy for an art restorer to remove dirt and grim from a painting’s actual surface as it is from a protective varnish layer. In fact, since the varnish layer has to be carefully removed, before any restoration of the actual painting surface can be preformed, the varnish layer just puts another time obstacle in the art restoration expert’s way. His recommendation was to only use varnishes (gloss, matte or in-between), if you desire the aesthetic effect it produces, not as protection for your painting. Picasso always demanded that additional varnish never be applied to his paintings, that they left his hands exactly as he wanted them to look…shinny where he wanted them shinny and matte where he wanted them matte.
The other alarming bit of news Corey passed on was that the jury is still out, as far as the archival qualities of acrylic paints are concerned. He mentioned that art restorers are today dealing with adhesion loss and other problems in acrylic paintings that were created immediately following World War II, when the paint was introduced. He went as far as to say, if you’re concerned about longevity in your paintings, you should use the time proven medium, oil paint and follow the recommended methods for preparing your canvases and applying your paints (thick over thin…fat over lean). This guy restores multi-million dollar paintings for the Museum of Modern Art, so I tend to believe he knows what he’s talking about.
While I’m busting myths, here’s a truth I discovered years ago, that I can’t resist sharing. Many artists and non-artist alike have lusted after Gauguin’s famous lifestyle. His paradise existence in Tahiti, painting the beautiful native people in their highly colorful environment, living off the abundance that the island provided in a shirt (even clothing) optional climate. I hate to destroy the fantasy, but the reality was that after a months-long journey through stormy seas, filled with violent attacks of sea sickness, Gauguin arrived on Tahiti to discover that the native people had been highly westernized decades prior to his arrival. They long ago abandoned their native dress for European styles, their open air bamboo and straw villages for western style homes and apartments and that Tahiti now ran on cash. To survive Gauguin accepted a job as a map-maker, working at a desk in the corner of a large shipping warehouse.
The artist had to hire individual native citizens willing to disrobe and dawn their native costumes, posing for those beautiful paintings of a time long past. He never made enough money to buy passage back to Europe, dying on the island from an advanced case of syphilis, which he’d acquired earlier, in the brothels of Europe.
I’m all for the convenience of buying a commercial pre-stretched canvas at my local art store. I’m ready to start painting as soon as I get it home. I don’t have to spend days, buying the lumber at the lumber yard, fabricating the stretcher bars, stretching the canvas and, if I’ve chosen raw canvas, sizing and priming the canvas, with multiple coats of acrylic gesso (sanding each coat), before I can actually put the canvas up on my easel.
There are occasions/arguments, for building your own canvas from scratch, however:
You want to be sure the canvas has been sized & primed following proper archival procedures. To achieve this you’d only need to stretch the canvas. You could buy and assemble commercial stretcher bars.
You need a non-standard size canvas. Commercial stretcher bars are only available in one inch interval lengths (12,” 13,” 14,” 15″…etc.), not fractions of an inch.
You need a larger canvas. Your local art store is unlikely to carry commercial stretcher bars in long lengths and I’ve never seen them available anywhere beyond 7′ in length.
I’m facing one of the above situation right now. I’ve got a commission for a mural-sized painting on canvas for a children’s hospital. The canvas needs to be 4′ x 7.’ I’ve found a source for commercial stretcher bars in the 7′ length, but I’d still need to figure out how to cross brace it, to prevent warping during the stretching process, and the 7′ lengths are pretty expensive to purchase and ship. I’ve decided it’s just as easy to build my own stretcher bars from scratch and I’m going to take you along on the ride.
I’ll use 1″ x 2″ common pine for my stretcher bars. I prefer the more expensive kiln dried clear pine, but that’s very difficult to find. The first step is to determine how much lumber I’m going to need. I begin with a free-hand layout of my stretcher bars, including the cross-brace supports and dimensions. You need cross bracing every 2′ – 3,’ both vertically and horizontally to prevent your stretcher bars from warping, when you stretch the canvas over them.
From my sketch I can determine how much lumber I’ll need and in what lengths. Lumber yards usually sell lumber in lengths based on 1′ increments, but your local hardware store or big-box hardware center may only provide lumber in fixed lengths (often 8′), so if one of the later two is going to be your source, check lumber availability out ahead of time.
For my 4′ x 7′ canvas I’ve decided I’m going to need six, 8 foot 1″ x 2″ sticks. They break down like this:
Two 8′ sticks provide two 7′ stretcher bars
Two 8′ sticks provide one 4′ stretcher bar & one 4′ brace each
One 8′ stick provides the 8′ brace
One 8′ stick provides two 4′ braces
I’m also picking up three 8′ and one 9′ length of 1/2″ quarter-round trim. I’ll explain what this is and why I need it later in this post. I’m also purchasing a small piece of 1/4″ masonite or plywood (if they have a scrap, that will be fine) to make corner triangles to hold my finished stretcher frame square.
Back home with my supplies, I’m ready to begin. We’re going to build our stretcher bars with the lumber standing on its narrow 1″ side (actually about 5/8″), so when complete, our stretcher frame will have a side depth equal to the 2″ side of the lumber (actually about 1 7/16″).
I start by measuring and cutting the stretcher bars (as opposed to the braces). We’re going to butt the corners of our stretcher bars together, as indicated at left. This means we’ll need to subtract the thickness of our sticks from the 7′ and 4′ length to arrive at a finished canvas that is exactly 4′ x 7.’ Since our 1 x 2s are 5/8″ thick, I subtract 5/8″ from my 4′ and 7′ total lengths to arrive at 3′-11 3/8″ and 6′-11 3/8″ respectively. Make your cuts straight across (at 90 degrees). You can use a hand saw or power saw (whatever you have available) to accomplish this.
Next I’ll cut my 4 corner right triangles from the masonite or plywood I purchased. For a canvas this size, I’ve decided to make my triangles 4″ on the 90 degree sides. For smaller canvases you can create smaller triangles.
With the parts cut, I’m ready to assemble. I nail each butted corner of my 1 x 2s together.
With the outside of the stretcher frame now nailed together, I need to square it (make each corner a true 90 degrees). I start by placing two of my four triangles in corners diagonally opposite each other. I nail the two triangles along their longest side only. Next I measure diagonally from one corner of the frame to the other. Then I measure the distance from the other two corners diagonally located across from each other. Both distances need to be exactly the same. If they’re not, I’ll adjust the square of my frame, moving one of the corners left or right until they do measure the same. Once both measurements are the same, I nail down the other sides of the two triangles. This will lock my stretcher frame square. I nail the remaining two corner triangles in place along both of their respective sides.
If you have distances of more than 2 1/2′ along any side of your stretcher frame, you’ll need to add supports. Support should be added at least every 2 1/2.’ Stretching canvas over your frame creates a great amount of tension on the frame. Without the braces, the frame will bow/warp.
My 4′ x 7′ stretcher bar frame requires 3 braces for the long side and 1 for the 4′ side. I’m starting with the 3 braces that will support the long sides. I subtract 1 1/4″ from my total 4′ length to compensate for the thickness of outside frame on each side (5/8″+5/8″ = 1 1/4″) and cut each (3) of the braces to a length of 3′-10 3/4.” I then nail the braces in place at equal intervals along the 7′ length.
Now I’ll move on to the horizontal brace. I’ll cut this long brace into 4 pieces (one for each space created by the vertical braces) and stagger them along the horizontal center line to facilitate easy nailing. I take an accurate measure of each horizontal space and cut my braces to length accordingly. I then nail each brace in place.
I built frames just like this for many years, but always had to gingerly step around an inherent problem in the design. Since the stretched canvas made full contact with the frame and braces, their edges could telegraph onto the surface of the canvas, as I was painting, if I wasn’t careful. Rotating the braces 90 degrees, so their widest side faced the back of the canvas and positioning them in the exact middle, front to back, of the frame prevented their telegraphing, but this allowed the frame to warp on the front or back edge, when the canvas was stretched over the frame and still left me with the edges of the perimeter frame telegraphing.
While visiting our property in Taos, NM, an artist friend living there showed me the new custom canvases he’d just had built. They were a little deeper than the ones I’d been building myself and, on examining the backside, I discovered a great solution to my telegraphing problem. Here’s where the 1/2″ quarter-round trim we purchased at the lumber yard comes in (and you thought I’d forgotten about that). By nailing the quarter-round trim, curve side facing in, along the top of the perimeter of our stretcher bar frame, we raise the canvas 1/2″ above the framing lumber. Because of the curve, the canvas only makes contact with the quarter-round on the outside edge of the trim, completely eliminating the telegraphing problem. Eureka!
To do a professional job with the quarter-round you need to invest in a basic miter box and the box saw that works with it, to cut accurate 45 degree corners. I measure my quarter-round to exact lengths of my stretcher bars (in my case two 7′ and two 4′ pieces). This is the top or outside measure of my 45 degree cuts. I make my cuts accurately, then butt my strips at the corners, making sure the edge of the quarter-round aligns with the outside edge of the stretcher bars. I nail the quarter-round in place (one nail about every 8″).
That’s it! A lot more complicated to describe than do. I’ll walk you through the process of stretching canvas over the stretcher bars, as well as how properly prepare the canvas for painting, in a future post.
One of the final levels of sophistication in painting is the character of the marks you make on your canvas. Growing artists often overlook this attribute in painting, choosing to blend everything instead. Over-blending is a contrived approach to painting surfaces and removes the power and character of the painting process that marks bring to the work.
I suppose this over-blending tendency comes from seeing the paintings of the Renaissance masters, who’s surfaces appear blended. Those surfaces were the result of the painting mediums and required application techniques available at the time. Most artists of the fifteenth century were painting with egg tempera, a very transparent painting medium. The application required elaborate underpainting and glazing techniques, where a complete, dark, monochromic underpainting base was created, before layer after layer of semi-transparent egg tempera color was glazed, painstakingly, over the top. The slow building up of these many semi-transparent levels gave the edges in the final surfaces of the painting a very smooth and blended appearance.
If you examine the paintings of later oil painting masters, you’ll find the character of THEIR surfaces to be more active. Take a close look at a painting by John Singer Sargent, for example. In your memory you see his surfaces as smooth and blended, but through a more precise examination you’ll realize they’re made up of precisely placed individual marks. Areas of less focus, like her lace blouse and jacket are painted with even more energetic strokes.
Other painting giants were even more expressive. Each with a character to their marks that were all their own.
While most subjects present both hard and soft edges, you don’t have to blend an edge to make it appear soft. A more interesting approach is to retain your marks and simply apply a series of close values to turn an edge, like Vincent did on the leading edge of his face and the back of his head in the above, “Self Portrait.”
One of the best ways I know of for breaking the habit of blending everything is to do what you should be doing anyway and work the entire painting at the same time, working from rough to tight. When you’ve adjusted everything else to your satisfaction, then and only then ask yourself if any of the edges need to be blended. I think you’ll find that they do not!
First let me apologize for my complete lack of posting over the last few weeks. I became buried with unsolicited work (always a good thing) and there just weren’t enough hours in the day to slice out time for writing (or painting, for that matter). I’m not kidding about the project volume. I’m currently working on 2 mural painting for 2 separate children’s hospitals, 4 branding projects for 2 new clients, I’ve taken on a new private student, have begun my second term as a teaching artist for the Mariposa County Arts Council and School System, designed an elaborate tattoo for a local businessman and I’m putting the finishing touches on a new website for Sierra Art Trails. Whew! Anyway, enough with the apology and on with the post.
I recently came across a filing folder of my childhood artwork. Unknown to me, my mother was saving much of what I created, as I was growing up and decided last year to pass the collection on to me. My mom and dad both turned 90 this year and my mom’s beginning to distribute these mementos among her five children. I never bothered to look through it, at the time, instead, just shoving it onto a shelf in the closet of my studio.
Looking for something else the other day, I noticed the folder and took a look inside. To my great surprise it contained a drawing pivotal in my life. A very early creation I had no idea my mother had procured and preserved. Right on top, quarter folded, was the drawing shown at the top of this post.
This was an early art assignment (maybe my first art assignment), given to a 5 year old me by my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Macnamara. The class was to draw something big and something small (as our teacher had written across the top of our blank sheets of manila paper, with a thick black crayon). I apparently decided to make animals my focus.
I’m sure I’d been to, what was then known as, the Griffith Park Zoo many times by then and experienced the elephants there, first hand: sizable beasts, when compared to a 5 year old looking up at them. So, when I thought of really big animals, elephants were an obvious choice.
I spent a lot of my 5 year old life playing outdoors with other kids in the neighborhood. In fact, I began kindergarten with my left arm in a cast to hold the broken bones still while they re-knit, an injury sustained through a bad fall, rough-housing with some of the older kids on the block. Anyway, I saw a lot of birds outside. So, under small I drew a bird. Seemed right to me!
When my teacher collected our drawings and reviewed them, she asked me if she could mat my drawing and put it up on the wall for the upcoming Open House. A little light went on in my head. Hmm, why me?
I got an answer to my question a few days later, when during the Open House, Mrs. Macnamara encouraged my parents and I over to the wall where my drawing was being displayed. She explained to my mom and dad why she selected my drawing to display. In addition to her liking the quality of this early effort (all smiles) I was the only student in the class to use comparative analysis in arriving at my solution. While everyone else in the class had drawn big and small version of the same object: a big sun and a small sun, a big house and a small house, etc., I chose to draw an item that was actually big in the real world with one that was truly small.
I felt myself swell with pride at the attention brought to this effort, early in my academic career and at that moment, then and there, decided what I wanted to do with the rest of my life!
I demonstrated my approach to abstract painting for a local art group, Alliance of California Artists yesterday. I enjoy providing art demonstrations of any kind and find verbalizing the steps I take, teaches me a lot about myself and my dance with the canvas. It was a good, attentive group, they asked questions, when they had them and I did my best to answer, throughout the length of the session.
I believe in demos. It’s fascinating to see how other artists work and how they solve the same challenges we all face in every painting session, but are we truly witnessing how the demonstrating artist works. In the 2-3 hrs. usually available for a demo, it’s unlikely we’re getting anything but an abbreviated/abridged version of the artist’s approach. I know that’s true with my demos, anyway.
On average, it takes me 30-40 hrs. to complete a painting. So when I’m demonstrating my process over 2 or 3 hrs. I have to strip a tremendous amount out my normal process, if I’m to give the audience even a hint of what my creation of a painting looks like. It’s a race, from start to finish, to accomplish all you can, before the ending buzzer sounds.
On top of that, anyone who’s read, Betty Edward’s, “Drawing On the Right Side of Your Brain,” knows you can’t communicate with an audience (a left brain function) and paint in the zone (a right brain function) at the same time. So, during a demo the individual demonstrating is jumping in and out of both left and right brain hemispheres. He or she never remains deep in the creative zone for any length of time during a demonstration, so normal problem solving is handicapped. They’re making quick, snap choices, rather than the slow introspective decisions arrived at alone in the studio.
I’ve tried a few thing to get around these time challenges, but I’m not sure they’re effective. I’ve shown up with my preliminary drawing already down on the canvas, but this takes away the opportunity for viewers to watch how I proceed through a drawing. I’ve even pre-finished multiple canvas at different stages of development, like your typical cooking show does. I’d begin a drawing before the eyes of the audience, then pull a canvas with the drawing already completed from under the table. I’d then start execution of my turp wash underpainting on this drawing, before revealing a canvas with a finished underpainting on it, leaving the lions share of the demonstration to be my blocking in color and detailing approaches. I’m not sure this is what the viewers had come to see.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best to start with a blank canvas and perform the whole process, albeit a truncated version, before the eyes of the audience. I’m often disappointed in the product of the session, but I’ve given the viewers at least a glimpse into my overall approach to problem solving. And isn’t that why they invited me there in the first place?
After completing two abstract bird paintings (“At Risk” and “Modern Building Materials”) for the “Avian: Birds in a Changing World” exhibit (a show to benefit our local Audubon Society chapter and Sierra Art Trails), I began thinking about what I wanted to enter in the Yosemite Renaissance show this year.
For those unaware of this exhibit and competition, Yosemite Renaissance is an annual show held in the Yosemite Museum Gallery, in Yosemite Village, in Yosemite National Park. It takes place in February, encourages non-traditional approaches to artworks focused on Yosemite and the surrounding Sierra Nevadas and offers a stiff competition, with only a 7% — 8% acceptance rate. After leaving Yosemite the show travels to various venues around California for a year. I love it, when I get into this show!
I had one piece, an abstract view of “Yosemite Falls from the Sentinel Swinging Bridge,” which was an appropriate piece to enter, but I wanted to submit something brand new, fresh off the easel and into the competition for the show. Around this time, a mountain lion had been spotted in our neighborhood, encouraging me to take a baseball bat with me each night, as I traveled out to the far corners of our property to turn on security lights. I believe this got into my head, as I decided to take on a mountain lion in my next painting. I’m going to walk you through my steps in painting “Pretty in Pink” here.
I started this one with a rough sketch, done with a Wacom Tablet and stylus connected to my computer. The computer is a great preliminary visualization tool, allowing me to easily grab a section of my sketch, move it, resize it, rotate it, etc and try what ifs, by turning layers off and on. Doing the same thing on paper, would be difficult and much more time consuming. Living in the Sierras, I’m told mountain lions are often near by, when I hike or mountain bike into wooded areas. They’re just out of site. I recall this being portrayed well in Michael Mann’s film version of “The Last of the Mohicans,” as Hawkeye and his Native American adopted father and brother are guiding the British colonel’s two daughters to a fortress to join their father. The older daughter silently perceives a mountain lion under the foliage, just off the trail, watching them pass. I decided to portray this silent laying in wait, graphically.
Often my sketch is just a rough concept, a starting point to be further developed on the canvas, but this sketch was spot on, so I started recreating it on my canvas, just as portrayed in the original sketch. Due to the complexity, it proved difficult to recreate accurately and I told myself next time I had a sketch this complex, I’d use a grid system to create the drawing on canvas. After a lot of adjustments, in charcoal pencil and oil paint, I finally had a drawing I was happy with on the canvas.
A few painting sessions and I had all the base
color blocked in. If I think of a way I might want to vary the color, as I’m blocking in, I execute it right then. If it doesn’t work out, as I begin to refine the painting, I can always paint things over, but I rarely just lay in solid flat colors at this stage. Note how I’ve moved the cat’s muzzle down, as I blocked in the color. I continue to refine my drawing, as necessary, as the painting develops. With the base color in, my cat, background and foreground leaves are all pretty equal in importance. While my goal was to hide the puma, to a great degree, in its environment, I’m going to need to separate the lion a bit more from its environment.
I added a hair pattern all over the mountain lion and different granite patterns to the rock surfaces. This adds a bit more complexity to the scene and, because patterns recede, is the first step in separating the mountain lion from the rest of the environment. Once the patterns dry, I’ll be able to use transparent glazing, as well as opaque painting to move planes forward or back and bring more importance to the cougar.
With a lot of the glazing completed I’m happy with the level of separation between cat and environ and the way certain planes advance, while others recede. I’ve also done some detailing on the stylized tufts of grass here. With so much of the painting completed, I determine how I want to finalize the foreground leaves, deciding on a here and there line pattern, inspired by the veins present on oak leaves.
At this stage, all that’s left is to apply the pattern to the remaining leaves, add a few last bits of detailing here and there and somehow take the uniformity away from the violet glazing around the leaf on the right, above the lion’s rump. I decide that some loosely applied ochre paint is the answer here. All these final additions can be viewed in the finished painting at the top of this post.
I completed “Pink” just in time to make the Renaissance entry deadline and recently learned it has been accepted into this years show!
I just ended my fall 10 week “Painting Tune-Up” workshops with a discussion about painting from photographs. It would be great to always paint from life, that remains my goal and should be yours, but there are always situations when working from a photograph is the best or even the only solution. With that in mind, I thought I’d discuss the pitfalls to watch out for and some techniques for getting the most out of working from photos.
Painting from photographs gets a bad rap. It’s always better to work from life (I’ll discuss why later in this post), but in certain situations a photograph is the only way to access a subject. Here are some situations when photography offers a solution:
• Painting postumous portraits
• Insufficient time to finish a painting on location
• Freezing quickly moving subjects in motion
• Locations offering no place to set up an easel
• Limited physical mobility
• Capturing a record of your subject, as insurance, for future emergency use
• Documentation of subjects you want to return to, when time allows
• Capturing intricate subject details for later reference
• Getting your painting on a computer for non-destructive experiments
Photographs can be a wonderful aid for artists, but they do present some inherent problems for which we need to compensate. A photograph is a technical recording of a live subject. It can’t capture the physical or emotional feeling presented by a subject or location that being there can.
A painting from life is a direct personal interpretation of all the 3 dimensional information presented by the subject. A photograph is a pre-flattened 2 dimensional recording of a 3 dimensional subject. It’s missing all the 3 dimensional information.
Even today’s latest cameras can only capture a subset of the full color and value spectrums present in a subject. The lighter areas in photos tend to be blown out (over-exposed) and the darker areas darker than the original subject (masking detail in the shadows).
Because a camera evenly records all attributes of the subject before it, painting exclusively from photographs can lead to over detailing, no distinction of detail in the focal area from the rest of the painting.
Cameras also inject their lens distortions into photographs, exaggerating foreshortening and distorting perspective towards the edges of the image. You need to be aware and compensate for these inaccuracies, when painting from photographs.
Here are a few good practices to overcome the problems and limitations in photography, discussed above.
Begin your paintings from life, whenever possible, even when you know the majority of work will be done in the studio from reference photographs.
Shoot your reference photos a bit wider than the composition on your canvas. You’ll often find, during the painting process, that you want to bring elements along the edges further into frame.
Bracket your reference shots. Bracketing is a term to describe the practice of taking multiple shots of your subject at different exposure settings, from slightly over-exposed, through correct exposure, to slightly under-exposed. Most cameras and smart phones today have a bracketing setting to automate this process.
Examine your subject, through the camera’s viewfinder, for the following: details that require dedicated shots, light areas that will likely over-expose or wash out, dark areas that will under-expose, losing color and details. Compensate for these losses by making mental and physical color notes.
Paint a color key thumbnail or add patches of the correct colors in unfinished areas of your painting, while on location.
Avoid working from photographs shot by others. You have no relationship to the live subject in these.
Paint from the photos you’ve taken A.S.A.P. while the actual location is still fresh in your memory.
Simplify areas of unnecessary detail present in the photo
Correct lens distortions present in the photos
We all must work from photos at one time or another. Remaining aware of photo limitations and compensating for their flaws assures a successful outcome in the painting from photographs process!