Archive for December, 2009

How much control?

Wherever you are as a painter on the realism-o-meter, you are either pushing for more control or less. It has a lot to do with a lot of things…. if you are in the learning phase you are usually pushing for a more sure handed approach to paint. If you are more advanced you might be seeking to lose a bit of that realism, trading it in for a little more abstraction or paint action to suggest a thing, rather than render it. I do see a lot of people who want to loosen up in my workshops and to be honest it’s not hard to do. Get bigger brushes, hold the brush at the end and not the tip or tie the brush to a long brush holder. Seriously. You should try it.

Another way is to try a different medium. This is gouache on clay board. I love this medium for it’s surface and for the fact that you can rewet and rework it once it’s dry, it’s an opaque water color. But the other quality it has is its unpredictability, it’s rife with what the watercolorists call the “happy accidents”. Some colors dry darker, most dry lighter, when you work into a pool of color you just never know what you are going to get. That’s why I like it. This piece is a little study for a commission. I thought I’d do it in a medium that left more to the imagination and had more chance of chance happenings. It’s sorta has nice color harmony throughout but what I really like are the little areas where the paint had other ideas and came up with better solutions.


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The consistency of time

I don’t know if any of you read the comments on my thoughts about art and stuff, but there are some really good ones. My friend Lynn Whipple, one of the most talented artists I know , has taking up plein air painting in oil over the last two years and has just figured out so much on her own it’s amazing, anyway, my point is she makes good comments and makes astute observations. She made a comment about getting the time of day right. Capturing the moment or capturing the light, some call it. I call it developing a consistent reality.

We paint outside, which takes time, the light changes over the span of time it takes to manufacture all of the little parts of the painting. Which means the temperature of color of the light changes. The rock in the foreground could be painted 2 hours or more after the rocks in the background.  If you are not paying attention it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the direction and nature of the light has changed which can show up in your painting. Mixed times.

One thing that helps is to create quick color note references in the painting once you get it generally sketched in. Notes for shadow and light throughout so that when you get to those zones in your painting and it’s two hours later you can refer to the color notes you made and adjust accordingly. The other is to strive for color harmony in the piece. This painting by Jack Wilkinson Smith is a great example. I’m sure it’s a studio painting but it has wonderful consistency of color and time. The warm light the illuminates this scene is reflected in every color. There are a couple of ways to do this; one is to really pay attention to the temperature or the relative warm and cool levels in every color you mix, another is to mix a little bit of a key color, say a warm yellow, into every color you mix and the other way is to put a tranparent glaze of one color over the entire painting once it’s dry, wiping out where it needs it, letting that dry and reworking the painting based on the revised temperature of the piece. Oh and the last is to go back to the same location over and over painting only at the same time each day for about a half an hour or so. It worked for Monet.

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There’s a youtube video making the rounds, a little girl, maybe 10, goes on stage on Britains got talent and starts to dance to “I could have danced all night” very cute, very sweet, not so good with the dancing… and then she opens her mouth and out comes a voice that forces tears from your eyes. Amazing talent. Super gifted at 10. She was born with whatever it is that makes it easy for her to sing like that. I don’t think her parents forced her into voice lessons from the age of 6. She came in to the world with the necessary software already  installed. Some people could spend their life practicing and not sing like that. Case in point, the guy who did this painting. Primo Conti, an Italian Futurist, born in 1900 who somehow got hooked up with some of the prominent painters of his day around 8 or 9 years of age. He painted this portrait when he was 16. You can’t learn this stuff with 4 or 5 years of training, especially as a kid. He was just given the gift of talent. Not only could he draw but he could interpret. I saw this painting in Florence and it blew me away and that was before I knew it was painted by a teenager. When I was 16 I was still drawing spaceships and surfers and tanks.

Now for the other 99%, such as myself, we have to get to it the hard way. Years of drawing, years of doing, logging the brush miles… you know, hard work. For me it’s slow and steady wins the race, I’ll just keep shlogging along until I get something worth looking at… or maybe that challenges my own sensibilities.  This guy Primo, for all I know, peaked in his teens. He’s not what you would call a household name like other similar prodigies; Sargent, Picasso, etc. But clearly this guy had some kind of advantage in the painting leg of the race. Like that Olympic swimmer with the webbed toes.

Which reminds me. One nice thing about being a painter, it’s fortunately not like music, in that you may hit a song out of the park and the whole world knows about it for a couple of weeks and then it’s forgotten. It would really suck to be a one hit wonder… have that taste of fame for a few weeks and then left playing rv camps and aggie fairs for the rest of your life. Though I did hear that 3 dog night is coming to a big rv amphitheatre in Apopka. I think I’ll go… Jeremiah was a bullfrog.

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Magical thinking

I had a dream this morning, it was an awesome dream. I could move things with my mind… just like that bad guy in X-men. I raise my hand and think it and it would happen, starting with small stuff and then going to big stuff. Boy, did it confound people. It was especially awesome because I have always thought that this should be possible. I can see it happening in my mind… if I can think it, it should happen right? Just like the day before when I finally picked up 2 beatles cd’s, abbey road and let it be. I’m listening to the guitar riffs that I memorized in college, my fingers following up and down the imaginary neck of my imaginary guitar. I got this. I can totally rock this. But I never actually learned how to play the guitar, it’s just fantasy… magical thinking.

I’m full of this stuff. Big ideas, surprising everyone at the party with my mad guitar skills,  surprising everyone by speaking cantonese fluently at the airport, an epic, monumental series of paintings, compellingly themed art installations with hundreds of figures. All of which probably won’t happen. Unless I actually do it. Thinking it doesn’t make it so. It’s a good start, a positive framework for the big idea that will change your life but thoughts don’t coalesce into form. Action does. Note to self.

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On atmosphere

To paint outdoors is to be influenced by nature and nature, as it turns out, is full of physics. One of those great little tricks of physics is atmosphere. We all know that atmosphere is just many, many feet of little particulates in the air that interfere with the light and shadows from distant objects but somehow that becomes very hard to translate into 2 dimensional notes of solid color. I think it’s just the way we think about it. Personally, I believe if, at first,  we train ourselves to paint what we see and not what we know then we can forget the physics of it and put down all the notes correctly until they turn into a painting.

Here are two examples of implied distance through atmospheric perspective. It’s just paint, not atmosphere. Hah hah!… You see? I tricked you! Actually one is pastel and the other is oil. One of the things that suggests that something is farther away from something else is the comparative change in color/value. Like, the shadow of the tree in the distance is cooler, grayer, lighter than the shadow of similar trees in the foreground. Pourquoi? All of those little particles between you and the thing in the distance are interfering with the shadows. The light stuff in the distance reacts a little differently. Shadows= absence of light but the light on a distant tree is a collection of photons being bounced at you in a certain spectral range. Light makes it through, absence of light, not so much.

Think of it as a whole bunch of clear shower curtains between you and that thing over there. The color in the dark shapes is interfered with by the layers of light bouncing off the shower curtains but those cute little photons still make it through, though grayed down. I sampled colors from the above two paintings to get the gradations in these two examples. If all of this gets too confusing to think about, go back to painting the notes of color that you see. Just compare what is going on in the foreground to what is going on in the background. Oh and then there’s that glazing trick with liquin and white and a tint that I’ve mentioned in previous posts (see Carmel redux), it really mimmicks atmosphere but requires a dried painting to do.

For my money there’s no one better than Steve Bach for this. He’s a master of moody, atmospheric landscapes. I put up a link to his site at right but it’s   http://www.stephenbach.com/   just in case.

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Fellow artist, Sally Schisler, just asked this question about the Twachtman paintings I posted, “After looking at them for a bit, it occurs to me that my eye falls very close to center.  Aren’t we not supposed to do that? Many times when I’m close to finishing a painting, I realize that I have created shapes/lines – etc. – that lead me right to the center….. I admittedly obsess over whether a thing feels balanced or not.  And I simply do not agree with the ‘avoid center’ train of thought.”

I love a good question, and I agree with your not agreeing. I’ve consulted the staff here at MyOpinion University and we’ve come up with a short dissertation on the dominant/subordinate rule in painting and why you use it… or not. As rules go, it’s a good one. I think the consensus of “centered is boring” is not without merit but the trick is to know why you are deciding to go one direction or another. Edgar Payne was a master of composition, his paintings are about leading the eye (eye flow) by creating a hierarchy in the painting. Making one thing dominant through scale or color or value, placing something else for your eye to go to next and so on. The main event dead center doesn’t leave many places for your eye to go and can be kinda boring…. in the wrong hands.

Here’s a perfect example of creating eye flow through the dominant/subordinate rule. Scale and value of boat number one draws you in, secondary scale and contrasting value takes you to number two, and for balance there’s boat number three and then you go back again to boat one. So not only is there a clear path for the eye to navigate, there is a kind of balance between the elements. I often think about a painting as having a fulcrum point and all of the elements in the composition having varying degrees of weight. If you know where your fulcrum point is you can alter the scale or color or weight of each piece to create balance and counter-balance.

Conversely, there’s Giorgio Morandi, a painter held in high regard and in almost any major contemporary collection you can think of. He had a tendency to place things in the middle without any supporting elements. But then, eye flow is not what his paintings are about. Instead of creating a compelling hierarchy in his work, he would suppress detail, space and volume to allow the viewer to concentrate on what was really important, the interplay of surface, shape and color.

Now I say there’s no hierarchy in these, but there really is, it’s just a more subtle, somber approach. And though the elements tend to be gathered in the center, nothing is dead center. If there is something dead center, then there’s a quiet counter-point to move you around. Likewise, Twachtman’s painting below has the center of interest in the center, but it’s not really, it’s down low and slightly off to one side with plenty to act as counter weight. The degree of hierarchy can depend on what your painting is about. I saw a small painting by Wayne Theibaud of a piece of watermellon floating centered in a field of creamy white. Didn’t bother me a bit because it was so beautifully painted.

The opinions generated by MyOpinion University do not reflect the opinions of the management. Oh wait, yes they do.

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Carmel redux

Here’s a little study that I did in Pt. Lobos near Carmel, CA this year. It’s a 10×12 and is one of those warm up, throw-em aways. At first I didn’t really care for this one but after a period of not looking at it, I could see the little things that needed to be done to make it better. Why I can’t see these things while I’m painting them, I can’t say. There’s something about being in the painting that obscures the minds ability to step away and view it on a purely objective level. And the corrections are usually minor things that make a huge difference. I made 4 small tweaks that really helped with the hierarchy of the elements, bolstered the idea of dominant/subordinate.

The first thing I did was to glaze the distant shore back using a little medium, some white and blue tint, to push it back and make it subordinate to the foreground. Second I darkened the foreground rocks in shadow and the reflections to really make it dominant and to push the design of the shapes. Third was to play up the reflected cool light on the foreground right rocks, to give them more roundness and bring the cool colors down into the warm of the rocks. Then intensified the warms of the water. Maybe not a finished painting for a frame, maybe it is but surely a good study for something bigger. I like it, I like the shapes. The good thing about using these studies for larger pieces rather than photos is that we are more free to embellish and recreate shapes to better serve the painting and not what we are looking at.

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