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!
First, let me apologize for my lack of new posts over the last two weeks. I’d received two new commissions for mural paintings from two different children’s hospitals a few day apart from each other and they required me to create 4 designs in 16 days. This, along with the 3 workshops I’ve been teaching each week, made it impossible for me to put together new posts.
Anyway, now that I’m writing again I wanted to talk about rejection. It seems to be going around lately! I recently ran into an artist friend, at an opening, who told me her submission had been rejected from a recent exhibit/competition. This from one of the most sought after, financially successful artists I know.
Two days later, at a local art organization holiday party, two more artist friends presented their work, prefacing with the fact the pieces had been rejected by recent shows. This prompted me to ask all present (about 50 artists) to raise their hands if they’d ever been rejected from an exhibit or competition. Every hand in the place shot up!
These bold admissions illustrate an important point for all artists, beginning or well established, to remember. Rejection is just a part of being an artist and rarely has anything to do with the piece of art being rejected. Instead, it has everything to do with the judges making the selection: their personal tastes or bias, their education, life experience, relationships, mood, even what they had for breakfast and their drive to work that morning. Different judges or a different day, completely different result.
Vincent Van Gogh only sold a single painting, during his lifetime.They hated his stuff! The Impressionist proudly chose their art movement’s name from a “catty” art critic, rejecting their work in whole as simply impressions of paintings, in a newspaper review he’d written.
All artists, big and small, are faced with rejection of their work. It goes with the territory. It signifies nothing. Don’t let it discourage you!
I’ve been teaching a lot lately, both to adults and, as a Teaching Artist, to kids in school. Having been creating art, in one form or another, since I was a tiny lad, I perform a lot of procedures, make a lot of decisions on auto-pilot, almost unconsciously, when at the easel. Many of these decisions involve critical creative fundamentals. Fundamentals I should be sharing with those in my classes. I’ve found these automatically performed functions to be the most difficult to relay to students. Not because they’re difficult to explain, but because, when I’m in the zone painting, I’m unaware that I’m even performing many of them.
So, I’ve made a conscious effort to make myself aware of every step that occurs, while I’m painting. To write them down, as they occur, for later communication to those in my workshops or classes. I’ve also found that talking through the process with other creative friends, verbalizing procedures, brings these buried faceted automatics out into the light. These conversations also reveal differences in how others works, providing me with even more information to share. If out of the blue, I begin a conversation with you about paint application or simplification of forms, let me apologize in advance, know the annoyance is serving a good cause!
Lifting procedures up onto the surface has been like a trip down memory lane. “When did I pick that up, who taught me that?” It’s a realization of how very many great teachers I’ve had, how many truly accomplished artists I’ve worked beside, how much information has been passed along. I’ve been extremely fortunate! It’s important to reveal and write all this stuff down, then pay it forward!
As far back as I can remember, I’ve considered myself an artist. This is likely because, from the age of 5 or 6, I was treated like an artist. My mother and her father, my grandfather, are/were both creative individuals, so I’m sure they were pleased I showed an interest and encouraged it.
I’ve learned, over time, that in addition to my love of art, from my mother I inherited a unique energy. I fall asleep at night (I actually resent having to sleep, at all), thinking about what I’m going to accomplish the next day and hop out of bed, the next morning, chaffing at the bit to get started. I continue driving forward until it’s, once again, time for bed. I thought everyone functioned like this, until many others pointed out to me that this was not, in fact, the case!
I’m of that first television generation. To my recollection, there was always a television in our house. I took full advantage of that. My inherited energy prompted me to jump out of bed, early in the morning, on weekends and during vacations from school, long before anyone else in the house was awake. I’d immediately switch on the TV to a test pattern. Trying to be patient, I’d fidget through the farm report (first program broadcast in the morning), waiting for the old silent black and white animated shorts to begin. I’d watch, learn and dream about creating animation myself, someday.
Saturdays were different, than other days off, however. On Saturdays the National Broadcasting Network presented “Learn to Draw,” hosted by Jon Gnagy, as part of their early morning line-up.
Long before Bob Ross (Bob was likely sitting in front of the TV in his PJ’s, as well), Mr. Gnagy would host on-air draw-alongs, guiding us through the creation of elaborate compositions, utilizing simple geometric shapes: the ball, the cone, the cylinder and cube. Later I’d learn that this was not actually a Jon Gnagy original discovery, but was instead promoted by Modern Art giant, Paul Cézanne.
Under Mr. Gnagy’s tutelage, I created snowy landscapes, asian seascapes, farm scenes, still lifes, you name it. Beginning in 1947 (before I was born, I must add), over time, his show grew in popularity, prompting the retail release of Jon Gnagy Art Studio Kits, sold in toy store. I was the recipient of many of these kits, as family friends and relatives saw them as perfect gifts for a young artist.
I don’t know what it was that made me think about Mr. Gnagy, lately, but something led me to search him out on the Internet. I learned that while Mr. Gnagy is long gone (he passed away in 1981), his studio kits are still alive and available thanks to the Martin F. Weber Company.
My research has also informed me that I was not alone in my devotion to the Learn to Draw program. I found this quote from Pop Art giant, Andy Warhol, “I watched his show every week and I bought all his books.”
I wonder how many other artist, famous or infamous, spread out their drawing materials on the floor in front of the TV set and, along with me, spent a half hour of their Saturday mornings following the goateed instructor’s lead.
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!
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.
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!
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!
Is an art school education really necessary for those that intend to make creating art their profession? Can’t you just learn everything you need to know about art, on your own, through practice? What do you actually gain from a formal art school education?
We’ve all run into self-taught artists in our lives with incredible abilities. Which begs the question, do you really need a formal and generally expensive, art school education to create great art? The answer, I believe, is no, but let’s discuss why I still recommend an art school education to anyone seriously interested in becoming a professional artist.
Sure some can reach an extremely high level of proficiency, as an artist, on their own and stand toe to toe with artists who have benefited from an art school education, without one. However, it takes an individual with an extremely high level of discipline, perseverance and hunger for knowledge about the arts, to pull it off. It also takes a long, long time to gain the same knowledge, on your own, that you’d receive in the typical 4 years dedicated to an art school education. But it CAN be done. Hell, Vincent van Gogh did it!
So, what are the benefits of a formal art school education? Thoroughness, truncation, concentration and camaraderie with hundreds of other artist, from around the world, experiencing what you are experiencing, at the same time. Realize you’re learning from professors with a lifetime of unique formal and, in the field, collected knowledge. Each one is passing this accumulated knowledge on to you. Quite the shortcut! You also gain a knowledge of art history you likely never would have acquired on your own. All organized and catalogued by significance. Artists and art movements you didn’t even know existed, that will prove important to the work you’ll create in the future. Art history informs of the important work that has come before us and explains why it is important. It prevents us from trying to reinvent the wheel, but instead enables us to stand on the shoulders of the giants in art.
So, get an art school education if you can, but don’t despair if it isn’t in the cards. With proper dedication and exposure, you can get there on your own, the journey is just a significantly longer one.