Making Marks vs Blending

Cezanne Painting
“Still Life with a Chest of Drawers,” Paul Cézanne.

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.

Sargent Painting
“Alice Vanderbilt Shepard Amon Carter,” by John Singer Sargent
Sargent detail image
“Alice” close up.

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.

Manet Detail Image
Detail, “Le Printemps ,” by Edouard Manet
Monet Detail Image
Detail, “Madame Monet and Her Son,” by Claude Monet
Renoir Detail Image
Detail, “Luncheon of the Boating Party, ” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Degas Detail Image
Detail, “Waiting,” by Edgar Degas (Pastel)
Cezanne Detail Image
Detail, “Still Life With A Chest Of Drawers,” by Paul Cezanne
Van Gogh Detail Image
Detail, “Self Portrait,” by Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gosh Edge Detail
Close values soften edges.

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.”

Van Gogh Hair Detail
Close values soften edges.

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!

Painting from Photographs

Wawona Covered Bridge Image
Begun on location, I utilized both of these photos to finish my “Wawona Covered Bridge” painting in the studio.

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.

Bracketing Photo
Example of “Brackeing” your photographs with multiple exposures, © 2017 Blaize.

Here are a few good practices to overcome the problems and limitations in photography, discussed above.

  1. Begin your paintings from life, whenever possible, even when you know the majority of  work will be done in the studio from reference photographs.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Paint a color key thumbnail or add patches of the correct colors in unfinished areas of your painting, while on location.
  6. Avoid working from photographs shot by others. You have no relationship to the live subject in these.
  7. Paint from the photos you’ve taken A.S.A.P. while the actual location is still fresh in your memory.
  8. Simplify areas of unnecessary detail present in the photo
  9. 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!

Brush Up

Applying Paint Photo

Too often we overlook the full capabilities of the tools in our paint boxes and forget that they were designed to ease our workload and extend the impact of our work. Let’s talk a bit about brushes.

Ancient Egyptian Brush Photo
Ancient Egyptian Brush formed from sticks flayed at one end.

The artist paint brushes in our hands today are the product of centuries of evolution. They are modern marvels, the result of extensive, in the field, use and contemporary engineering. That’s all wasted, however, if we ignore all they can do.

It’s important to use the proper brush for the job at hand. My favorite workhorse brush, when painting with oils or acrylics, is the bristle brush. This baby’s stiffness can move the thickest of paints across a canvas and is great for scumbling, dry brush and impasto techniques. It’s my go to brush for most of my painting needs.

When you’re painting wet into wet, especially in a single session, alla prima, you’ll find the bristle brush less effective in paint over paint application. It’s rigidity tends to pick up the wet paint from lower layers, mixing them with the new paint you’re attempting to apply, preventing you from applying clean new strokes. This is when you want to utilize your sable brushes. A light touch with one of these, will float the new color on top of the previous applied wet layers.

Glazing (transparent layers of color utilizing large amounts of painting mediums) can be accomplished by either bristle or sable brushes. It all depends on the viscosity of your mixture.

I covered the proper brush for the job in more detail in a previous post, “Be Good to Your Brushes & They’ll Be Good to You!

Grasses Image
Thin, overlapping vertical & diagonal strokes for grass.

What I actually wanted to talk about in this post was allowing your brushes to do some of the work for you. All the subjects you paint possess visible characteristics quite different from each other. These characteristic are the result of things like growth patterns, chemical make-up, environment wear, etc. The leaves on a tree present a much different surface characteristic than, say, the granite face of Half Dome, in Yosemite, for example. Yet, it’s easy to ignore this fact and apply paint to canvas in the same uniform manner, when executing all elements in our compositions. Boring!

Clouds Image
Rolling a bristle brush around, with occasional edge flicks to communicate clouds.

Instead, pay attention to how the elements you’re painting grow, what they’re made of, how they move, how their surface reflects light and color and then allow your brushwork to communicate this. The British painter, Alwyn Crawshaw, famous for tv shows, books and videos on painting, suggests you try to become the element you’re painting, “I’m a fluffy little cloud!” Then paint the element accordingly. A bit over the top form me, but I get what he’s saying.

El Cap Detail Image
Crisp vertical strokes for granite.

What does this actually mean: allow your brush to reflect the characteristics of various elements in your paintings? Well, when studying the granite face of a monument like Half Dome or El Capitan, in Yosemite, you’ll notice it has very chiseled characteristics with strong vertical concave and convex up and down forms. A great approach in painting these, might be to use the edge of a flat brush to create vertical strokes, occasionally rolling the brush a bit, from side to side, to vary width in the process.

Leaves Image
Globbed paint then flicked at the edges for leaves.

Foliage on trees often starts with a glob of paint and ends with a flick of the brush towards the edges. With clouds, rolling the brush around, then flicking an edge here and there might be the best solution. Ground is often a series of short horizontal strokes, reflecting the years of overlapping footprints of man and animals. The directions of strokes over a face in a portrait reflect the anatomical structure beneath. Strokes representing a flowing river tell of the repeating pattern it creates as it travels around rocks and over an uneven river bottom.

How you portray the various characteristics of the elements that make up your paintings is a personal choice, there’s no ONE good solution. I’m suggesting that your paintings will be more dynamic, more interesting, if you consider the actual structure, make up, of the elements in your compositions, then reflect this to your audience with how you use your brush in your paint application.

Chasing Shadows

Ahwahnee Bridge Detail Image
“Ahwahnee Bridge (detail),” by Trowzers Akimbo

One of the most difficult concepts for artists to understand or accept, I find, is color theory. It’s a tough buy-in to ask of anyone who’s been taught all their lives that the primary colors are red, blue and yellow (subtractive color) and that when these 3 are combined, a murky black is the result, to now understand, that with light (additive color), the primary colors are red, blue and green and, when combined, result in white. It doesn’t seem possible!

Subtractive Primaries Image           Additive Primaries Image

An extension of that reluctance of acceptance is the fact that shadows on an object are not just darker versions of the color of that object in light, but, in fact, completely different colors. For example, a red apple’s shadows are actually some form of green, not just a darker red. The consequence of this lack of acceptance is artists just adding black to colors to create shadows, resulting in myriad, otherwise beautifully executed, paintings continuing to exhibit dull, dirty, lifeless shadows.

Viewing Color Image
Red light reflected back to eye.

In hope of convincing those holdouts, let’s quickly review how the eye perceives the color of elements in the world. Clean white light is the resulting combination of all colors in the light spectrum. All colors in the light spectrum being those we see, when this white light is refracted, then reflected by a Prism or in a Rainbow. The various subjects we encounter in the world don’t actually have a color, per se. Instead their molecular make-up either absorbs the various colors of the light spectrum or reflects them off the surface of the subject and back to our eyes. So, when you perceive an apple as red, you’re doing so because that apple could not absorb red colored light and reflects that light back to your eyes. All other colors in the light spectrum (blue, purple, green, yellow, etc.) are absorbed by the apple. In the case of shadows, direct light is blocked, in turn, the light color being bounced back to our eyes is also blocked, leaving a combination of all remaining colors of light in the shadow. Confusing? Yes, but there’s a simpler way to remember this!

Color Wheel Image
The Color Wheel

The color wheel is one of the most important tools in an artist’s paintbox. Among other things, it’s your simple guide to the color in shadows. As it turns out, the shadow color of any given color is its compliment. Take the primaries red, blue and yellow. Yellow’s compliment is violet. Remember our discussion above, stating the shadows of any given color are a combination of all the remaining colors in the color spectrum? Well, those astute readers out there have likely already realized that yellow’s compliment, violet, is the combination of the two remaining primary colors, red and blue. The color wheel makes calculation unnecessary and locates each color’s compliment directly across from it on the wheel.

While there are other factors involved in determining the final color of a given shadow, like value, nearby reflected color, color of the surface on which the shadow falls, etc., knowing the base color of shadows, moves you away from black and assists you in using your eyes to determine what’s really there before you.

Carry a small color wheel around with you, use it diligently to help determine color in shadows and you’ll find, in a very short time, that you have it memorized. Your shadow depth will increase and your paintings become more lively!

 

Necking

Dirty Paint Tube Photo
Dirty paint tube neck.

I never used to even consider paint tube hygiene to be of any concern in my painting. I just put up with the built up dried, gooey, messy paint that collected around the neck of my paint tubes, the difficulty this caused in getting the caps to screw on properly and even broken paint tube caps. I just thought this was the way all painters lived: simply a cost of doing business in this bohemian world.

After a lifetime in this “dirty” world, I recently discovered a path to a cleaner life. It requires a change of habit and a bit of diligence, but I think I’m up for the task. I’m tired of grinding concentrated bits of pigment into the floor of my studio or tracking it through the house, when a bit of this goop, unseen, falls from the neck of a tube and ends up on the bottom of my shoe.

Clean Paint Tube Photo
Tube neck after cleaning and oiling.

How do you adapt this change in lifestyle? You start by removing the paint goop from the neck of each paint tube in your paintbox. If the tube is almost empty or the gunk is too difficult to remove, just give up on this tube and begin your new regimen of hygiene, when you’ve used the color up and replaced it with a new tube. Once the paint is removed from the neck, apply a drop of linseed, walnut or safflower oil (your oil of choice) to the threads on the neck of the tube. You won’t believe how smoothly the cap now screws on and off. From there, it’s just a matter of wiping away wet paint from the threads, whenever it begins to collect and applying the oil.

Stay the course and your paint tubes will function like well oiled machines. Ugh!

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.