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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
I’ve wanted to paint ravens for some time now, but never seemed to get around to it. I’m fascinated by the gamut of colors emanating from their shiny, deep black plumage, like an oil stain in the parking lot, after the rain. I’d always planned to paint a representational version, then the upcoming exhibition/competition, Avian: Birds in a Changing World, nudged me both towards painting them now and painting them as an abstraction.
The Avian prospectus encourages artists to make a statement concerning the effects our changing environment is having on our feathered friends and I felt the concept I had for a painting in that light, was better communicated through abstraction.
That painting now being complete, get comfortable and I’ll walk you through the process.
I had a clear concept, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to present it. So, I started out by creating a rough sketch, in Photoshop, on my computer. I find it advantageous to do my thinking sketches on a computer, as you can easily try variations out on layers and changes are faster and cleaner than you can achieve with pencil, paper and eraser. The sketch was getting confusing, so I darkened the ravens to more clearly view their shape.
Often the sketch I do at this stage is just a rough thumbnail concept of what I want the finish to be: the composition unresolved. This time, though, I realized my sketch was resolved enough to transfer as is to my 30″ by 40″ canvas. I had difficulty redrawing the sketch, in charcoal, on my canvas. I kept getting scale, shape or placement wrong. I decided to use acrylic paint instead. Following Matisse’s drawing with shape approach, utilized in his cut paper creations, I laid out the ravens as solid black shapes. The acrylics allowed me to quickly add or subtract from my drawing, due to their fast drying time. Eventually, I had a layout on my canvas with which I was happy. In hindsight, I would probably have been better off using a grid system to make the transfer.
With the drawing blocked in, I began adding some collage elements. The concept here is, that with all the refuge present in the contemporary environments the birds call home and less open, wild areas from which to collect natural building materials, the birds are resorting to incorporating elements of trash in their nest construction. I wanted to use actual litter elements to communicate this.
All the collage elements in place, I laid down the nest darks and blocked in the other base colors. I was going for uneasiness in the viewer here and remembered a disturbing gas-lit poolroom scene van Gogh had painted. I borrowed the acid-green color present there for my background. Still, I didn’t feel the background was alive enough and borrowed another van Gogh
vehicle: swirling, pulsating brushwork, to the background. At this point I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with the ravens themselves. I felt I’d better work on the birds a bit. Whatever I did to them was going to determine what I would need to do with the rest of the painting. I knew however I handled the ravens, they would need to feel black overall or they wouldn’t read as ravens.
I decided to use the rainbow of color radiating from the shine present on the deep black raven feathers present on the real birds, that I spoke of earlier, as my inspiration for what I’d do with these guys. I started with the heads, then proceeded to the bodies, adding not only color, but also pattern. I also added the speckled pattern present on real raven eggs, before returning to work on the nest itself.
The nest now looked pretty flat to me. It needed a broader value range, if it was going to live in the same world as the ravens and their eggs. I added some light, mid-value and even a view gray twigs (for some color variation) to the nest. It still looked too flat, so I tried adding some shadowing to the twigs in one area of the nest. That seemed to be what the nest needed, so I continued adding the same shadowing throughout the rest of the nest.
Looking the painting over, the edges where the raven on the left and the nest met the yellow-green background seemed to severe to me. I decided to soften the transitions with a bit of loose painting. You can see the result of these final touches in the finished version at the start of this post.