Painting & the Digital Preview

Rare Sighting Image

Computers and computer software have played a major role in my working life. As some of you may know, prior to becoming a full-time fine artist, I spent a considerable amount of time earning my living by developing computer games, as chief creative officer. So, I’ve been using image editing applications, like Photoshop (PS), since they first appeared for sale (and many others, before PS arrived on the scene). Finding my way around in apps, like PS, is pretty second nature to me.

Where in the past when I had an idea for a major painting change or addition I wasn’t 100% sure would work, I just had to bite the bullet and try it with paint. When it didn’t work out, I had to scrape out and repair, if I was working with oils, paint over my change, trying to remember what was there before, if working with acrylics or start over from scratch, if working with watercolors. These days, I instead turn to the computer to try out a quick digital preview test, before committing to paint.

You don’t have to be an expert with computer image editing software to perform these digital previews. In most cases you’re just using very basic image editing tools. You also don’t have to purchase Photoshop. There’s a pretty good free image editor offered at: www.pixlr.com that will do the trick.

I’m going to demonstrate my process in Photoshop, but Pixlr works very similarly.

Bear Without Hair Image
The bear before I tried the hair pattern.

When I was painting the bear in my picture, “Rare Sighting,” from the start I’d intended to cover him with some type of hair pattern, but the detailing I put into the bear was a lot of work. I was concerned about adding the hair pattern on top of this great effort, without testing it first. I didn’t want to have to go back and re-render large parts of the bear, painting the pattern out, if the hair turned out to be a mistake. So I turned to PS.

Bear With Hair Image
The bear with the hair pattern on a separate layer.

I shot the bear with my digital camera, but you could use your smart phone or tablet to take the shot. I transferred the digital shot to my computer and opened it in PS. Then I created a separate layer, on top of my digital painting image and I painted the hair pattern on this new layer. An added bonus in working this way is that you can turn the layer off and on, flashing back and forth from the painting with the change to the painting without. Something you could never do, if you just added the change to the actual painting.

You’re not limited to simple, straightforward changes like this one. As you become more proficient with the image editor, you can try out just about anything. I’ve tested glazing, color changes, textures, gradients, shadows, you name it, only executing them in the actual painting if they work. I’ve abandoned as many tests, as those I’ve followed through with, but when I followed through, I did so with complete confidence.

I’ve had some tell me they feel this is cheating. That’s a whole lotta’ bull! As the saying goes, they need to get with the program! To not take advantage of new visualization tools made available in the artist paintbox would just be ridiculous! Save yourself a lot of headaches and give digital previewing a try.

Turpentine, Good to the Last Drop!

Solvents Photo

Did you realize you can easily reclaim your dirty brush cleaning solvent, whether turpentine, Turpenoid or Gamsol? For years I was collecting my dirty solvent in an old closed container for later collection by (or delivery to) a toxic waste center. Then I learned about the simple painting solvent reclamation process.

When dirty brush cleaning solvents are left undisturbed for a period of time, all the paint solids settle to the bottom of the solvent container, with clean solvent, only, left on top. This allows you to pour off the clean solvent into a temporary container, leaving the paint solids, settled in the bottom of the solvent container, behind. Then it’s just a matter of wiping the solids out of the bottom of the container, with paper towels or old disposable rags and disposing of the dirty paper towels or rags properly (I’ll discuss this shortly). You can now pour your reclaimed, clean solvent back into your brush cleaning container.

How long the solids take to settle depends on the paint colors you’ve been using, but they usually settle, for the most part, overnight. If you let them settle for a couple of days you get an even cleaner separation. I generally paint during the working week and take the weekends off to deal with household chores. My approach is to use the solvent all week, let the solids settle over the weekend and do my reclamation before I begin painting on Monday. The reclaimed solvent looks almost like I’ve poured it out clean from it original bottle or can.

Firesafe Can Photo
My “firesafe” can.

Now, what to do with those dirty, paint soaked paper towels or rags. You do know you should have a firesafe can in your studio don’t you? When you paint with oils, the solvents, mediums and paints themselves are highly flammable. Remember those cautionary film strips in elementary school that talked about old oil and paint soaked rags, out in the garage, spontaneously bursting into flame? Well, the rags you’re using while painting, to wipe your brushes, palette, spills, etc., are those spontaneously combustable items they we referring to in those films. All these materials should be isolated, in a firesafe can, while in your studio, until you put them into your regular trash for collection.

I purchased my firesafe can online at www.uline.com or you can ask your local hardware store about one. Keeping your painting rags and other discarded painting materials (old tubes, latex gloves, etc.) in a firesafe can is important, whether you adopt my solvent reclamation routine or not. You don’t want to be responsible for setting your home ablaze, while you’re away from the house or sleeping.

Who’s in Charge Here?

The Scream Image
“The Scream,” Evard Munch

When I was a child I only pulled out the supplies and created art when the mood struck me. This practice continued through my teen years. I run into many adult artists today who are still slaves to mood, when it comes to getting creative work done.

This is fine, if art is a hobby with you and your productivity isn’t of concern, but if you consider yourself a professional artist, you can’t afford this luxury, you need to be able to paint on demand. A client is unlikely to have the patients to wait until the mood strikes you to receive their commissioned piece and galleries avoid artists who don’t consistently deliver. I’ve had several artist friends in whom particular galleries were interested, until they saw their limited inventory.

I understand the hesitation in starting a new work, a blank canvas is very intimidating. The same questions go through all our heads. What do I paint? What if the painting doesn’t go well? Are my best works behind me? Etc. etc., the list goes on and on. And your fear will conjure up any excuse to keep you out of the studio: the house needs dusting, the cat’s due for its bath, the sofa cushions need to be rotated! Be confident in knowing all artists have to overcome these same psychological barriers to get started with a new work, the road blocks never go away. The challenge is in ignoring your doubts and jumping in with both feet.

Calendar Image
Set a regular time to create & stick to it!

Starting gets easier with time, but it’ll never get easier if you don’t force yourself to push on. How? Set up a given time to work. Only you can determine how much time you have for this. Make it the same time each day, week, month, whatever, but when that time comes along, CREATE, regardless of mood. Don’t allow yourself to leave before your appointed time is up, no matter how it’s going. With the improved self discipline, your productivity increases, your skills improve and your confidence grows. The more mileage you put in at the easel, the easier it becomes to paint yourself out of bad situations you encounter. Experience is knowledge!

A wise artist I worked with at my first position out of art school, Lou DeWitte, defined the professional for me. Lou was 50 years my senior, with a long history as a professional. He’d worked on the credits for “Citizen Kane,” as a young man. He told me the amateur delivers 100%, 10% of the time. Giving 10% on this occasion, 60% on that, 30% on another, etc. But the professional, while delivering 100% the same 10% of the time, delivers 95% the other 90% of the time. Bottom line, even the professional is only as good as they can be, at any given time, but you can always count on them to deliver!

Things My Mother Taught Me

Turp Wash Image
Turp wash underpainting.

I’m a 3rd generation artists. My maternal grandfather was an artist (and a hilariously funny individual). He used to sketch things for us on a little yellow notepad, on demand. He owned a custom bedspread and drapery business, down on South San Pedro Street, in Los Angeles, where he designed and fabricated beautiful custom bedspreads and coordinated draperies for particular individuals, interior designers and hotel chains. He designed many of his own fabrics and all of his quilting patterns.

Girl with Lamb Normal Photo
Normal, non-squinting view of subject.

One of his daughters, my mother, was an even more diverse artist: painting oils, watercolors, creating and teaching ceramics, writing poetry, designing sets for local dramatic productions (acting in some of them), designing and fabricating unbelievable exotic costumes and working as a fashion designer for 30 years.

It goes without saying, that I had lots of support, once I showed an interest in art. My mom shared a lot of creative tools and methods with me, as I was becoming an artist. One of the most valuable, one I still use constantly today, is squinting.

Squinting View Photo
Squinting detail reduction simulation.

Squinting is a great tool in helping you to simplify your subject matter, helping you eliminate details and identify the masses. Before I ever put pencil or brush to canvas, I squint to identify the mass shapes of the darks, mid-values and lights in my subject matter. What I see while squinting is what I indicate in my turp wash underpainting (the armature on which I build my painting).

I open my eyes fully, while painting, of course, to see the actually subtleties of the color and value before me, but I keep the masses in mind throughout the painting process to maintain a simplified, powerful relationship across my value range (darks, mid-tones and lights). If I lose sight of this relationship, I squint again for a refresher.

Turp Wash Small Image
Note actual mass values are determined with eyes open.

I’ve found this to be a wonderful way to separate out surface detail from value (grayscale) substance. I can confidently add as much surface detail (window dressing) as I want to my finished painting, but by squinting I reduce my subject down to basic shapes and values, eliminating any confusion, caused by the detail, in identifying the basic masses from which I want to build my composition.

Value: The Drama Queen in Painting

Portrait of Joris de Caullery Image
Rembrandt achieves maximum drama in a static pose, in “Portrait of Joris de Caullery,” through contrasting light and dark values.

In a couple of past posts, Got Color! – Part 1 and Part 2, I spoke of how your use of color controls the life of your painting. Well, if color controls life, your use of value determines the level of drama in your paintings.

For those of you non-painters out there, value, in painting, refers to the gray scale levels in a painting: what’s left when you strip a painting of its color or hue, similar to what you’d see in a black and white photograph of a full color painting.

Value Guide Image
9 step value guide

Most painters work with 9 values: 9 even incremental stages of gray from pure white to pure black. There are some painters out there who believe in reducing this spread, limiting their paintings to only 4 values. They believe the 4 value limit increases unity and cohesiveness in a painting. You’ll have to decide for yourself in which camp to pitch your tent.

Rouen Cathedral Image
Light, tint values make for the serene in Monet’s “Rouen Cathedral.”

Colors with values at the light, white side of the scale are referred to as Tint. Colors with values at the dark side of the scale, towards black, are referred to as Shade. The more contrast you provide between your light values and your dark values (see Rembrandt’s, “Portrait of Joris de Caullery,” at the top of this post), the more tension, drama your painting will communicate. Paintings with all their values at the shade end of the value scale, exude a dark, melancholy feeling. Paintings with all their values on the light, tint end of the value scale, tend to be serene in mood.

Black in Deep Red Image
Dark, shade values communicate melancholy in Mark Rothko’s “Black in Deep Red.”

Additionally, the darks in a painting act as a kind of armature or foundation, supporting the entire composition, as they weave in and out of background, mid ground and foreground.

Rubens Shadow Painting Image
Underpainted in uncharacteristic red, Rubens binds his image together with darks.

When you determine how values will be used in your paintings, you are determining the drama to be communicated by your canvas, as surely as if you were a lighting director, lighting a set for a play or film.

 

 

Special Framing for Soft Pastels

Portrait of Priscilla Bugg Image
“Portrait of Priscilla Bugg,” 16″ x 12,” soft pastel on paper by Trowzers Akimbo in special pastel mat.

A few years ago I came across a great system to use when matting soft pastel artwork for framing. Those of you who frame a lot of work created with this medium have likely noticed that, over time, some of the chalk falls from the artwork and collects along the bottom inside edge of the mat. The system I’ll demonstrate avoids this.

Pastel Board Cut DiagramKey to this system is that you cut your mat with a 45 degree bevel, but reverse the bevel so the 45 degree cut edge faces inward, towards the artwork, not outward towards the glass, as it normally would. When cut correctly, you see a sharp edge on the inside of the mat surrounding your artwork, not the 45 degree cut edge that reveals the center color of the matboard (generally white).

Mat Cut Corner Image
Corner of the top mat, cut using a reverse 45 degree bevel.
Hidden Mat Image
Hidden Mat attached to the back of Top Mat.

Next you need to cut a second hidden mat to be attached to the back of the first top mat to create an airspace between the artwork and the top mat. Any falling pastel chalk dust will fall behind the top mat and come to rest at the bottom of the airspace, out of view.

Since you won’t see this 2nd hidden mat, it’s a great opportunity to use scraps of that hideous colored mat board you have laying around. I cut mine from one piece of board, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t use separate strips of board for this function. I size my hidden mat so the viewing opening is 1/4″ smaller, all the way around, than my top mat and 1/2″ smaller, all the way around from the top mat’s outside edge. This way I’m sure no one will be able to see the hidden mat, when viewing my framed artwork from the side and by keeping my overall hidden mat smaller than the top mat, I avoid it getting in the way of the frame, when I put everything together. Remember, that this hidden mat will come into contact with the backer board you’ve attached your artwork to and possibly the artwork itself, so you need to use acid free, archival mat board, if longevity is important to you.

Hinged Image
The mat assembly & backer board hinged together with acid free tape.

From here you just finish the framing following your normal procedure. I hinge my mat board to the backer board with archival tape.

Because I usually create my pastels on normal pastel paper, I couldn’t hinge the artwork to the backer board, as I normally do with works created on other substrates, using Japanese paper for the hinges and wheat starch as the adhesive. The wet wheat starch mixture would cause the paper to buckle, where the attachments were made. So, I used archival polypropylene photo corners, which I purchased at my local art store, to make the attachment.

Corner Image
Archival Polypropylene Photo Corner

That’s it! Use this mating system and you’ll never again have to pull your artwork out of the frame to clean the collected pastel dust from the edge of the mat.

Got Color! – Part 2

Subtractive Color Wheel Image
The Subtractive Color Wheel

In my last post I talked a bit about how the two color systems, Additive Color and Subtractive Color work and how our eyes physically perceive color. In this post we’ll get down to the fun and helpful part of the color theory discussion: the color wheel and how to use it.

How the color wheel is laid out, is vitally important to its function. The 3 Primary Colors: yellow, red and blue are at 12 o’clock, 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock. They form the Triad of the color wheel. At locations halfway between each of the primary colors, as you work your way around the wheel, are the Secondary Colors: orange, violet and green. Colors that are next to each other on the color wheel are referred to as Analogous Colors, colors directly across from each other are Complementary Colors.

Understanding this information can assist you in establishing Mood in your paintings. For the most harmonious, serene mood in your work use analogous colors, colors next to or near each other on the color wheel. For the most lively color themes in your paintings, utilize complementary or near complimentary colors: colors opposite each other on the color wheel.

Select any color, at any location on the color wheel. Locate the color directly across from it, its Compliment, and realize that the complement is made up of all the colors in the color spectrum that the first color lacks. For example: red’s complement, green, is made up of blue and yellow. Orange’s (red and yellow) complement is blue. When you abut pure complements of identical value against each other, the two colors are so lively they’ll create a color vibration producing an optical illusion in your eye of a third color along their adjoining sides.

Too often, I’ve seen painters using black to darken their paints. Black paints are made from charcoal. So adding black to darken your colors is kinda’ like adding a  charcoal briquette to your color. It makes your colors dirty.  Since the world is lit by a spectrum of colored light (remember the discussion of the Additive Color spectrum in my last blog) there is color even in shadows. They’re really not black. A better solution, than using black, is to bring the value of your colors down by adding a dark version of the compliment or a near compliment. Using the complimentary color is also the best way to mute colors that are too bright for your purpose. The muted colors and grays you create are scrumptious (did I just say scrumptious?)!

Color Strip Image
Starting with orange & adding its complement turquoise until we arrive at pure turquoise.
The grey created halfway between orange & turquoise.

If you must use black and you’re working with oils, at least take a look at the new black, Chromatic Black, created by Gamblin Artists Colors. They avoided charcoal and instead mixed very dark versions of Phthalo Green and its compliment Alizarin Crimson to create a black. So you may still be using black, but you’ll be working with color not charcoal.

And here’s probably the most important thing the color wheel can assist you with. Ever stand there pondering your subject matter, whether an old barn on location or a live model in the studio and ask yourself, “What the hell IS that color in the shadow?” We’ve all been there, many times! Determine the color of lit area of your subject and know the shadow is going to be some value of its compliment. Colored light casts a complimentary colored shadow. Doubt this? Grab a light source, a colored piece of cellophane, a white card and an egg and find yourself a dark room. Point your light wrapped in the colored cellophane at the egg resting on the white card. The shadow cast will be a brilliant version of the cellophane’s complimentary color.

Add a color wheel to your paintbox. Use it religiously and in no time you will have it committed to memory. The colors in your paintings will be become cleaner and more lively!

Got Color! – Part 1

Subtractive Color Wheel Image
The Subtractive Color Wheel

It’s surprising the number of artists I encounter who have never been introduced to the color wheel and the important role it plays in color theory. Many have seen it, but most have never been shown how to use it. Yet, it’s one of the most important tools in your paintbox.

The color wheel can help you identify the true color present in your subject matter, especially in the shadows, help you properly mix and mute paints and chose an appropriate palette for establishing the mood of your undertaking.

There are actually two color systems (three if you include the Munsell’s system), one for the color of light, Additive Color and one for color of pigment, Subtractive Color. I’ll give you a brief description of both systems (we’ll save discussion of Munsell’s system for a later time) and then describe how to use the Subtractive color wheel to your benefit in painting.

Additive Primaries ImageAdditive color theory is important to understand, though, since it is all about how the LIGHT color spectum functions, unless you’re a photographer or lighting director in theater or film you won’t have the opportunity to manipulate it.  It is the system by which you view color in the world. The primary colors in the Additive color system are red, blue and green (not red, blue and yellow, the primaries in the Subtractive color system). Mixing all 3 primaries results in white light. When you see an object as red, like an apple, the molecular make up of the apple is such that it is absorbing all colors in the light spectrum, but red. Because the apple can’t absorb the red light, the red light rays bounce off the surface of the apple and back to your eye. Ironically, you could say the apple is every color but red, since it’s absorbing all the other colors in the light spectrum, but red.

Subtractive Primaries ImageIn subtractive color theory the primary colors are the more familiar red, blue and yellow. This is the system we work in, when we mix paints. The combination of all three primaries in this system result in black. You’re mixing pigments in this system, not light. Your eye perceives the colors you mix, however, in the same way it perceives the colors of the light spectrum. The molecular structure of any particular pigment color absorbs all color but the color you perceive. Blue, for example, absorbs all colors of the spectrum accept blue light and, therefore, bounces or reflects the blue light back to your eye.

Confused? I know this can  be a little disorienting at first. Be comforted in knowing it’s not as important to understand how the eye physically perceives color, as it is to understand how the color wheel can help you work with color, when you’re painting. I think I’ve probably given you enough to ponder here, so I’ll break this one post in two and cover the function of the color wheel and its benefits to the painter in my next post.