A Breakthrough

“Straddling the Mean”
Watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
This last week was a big week in my class, entitled “Watercolor Beyond the Obvious.” It is a ten week long course with multiple goals: to paint a series of paintings around the same subject, to learn about and apply the elements and principles of design and to get past mental barriers preventing success. The class is lively with lots of lecture and examples presented, while the participants paint two 22″ x 30″ paintings each week and bring them for critique. Each class session features over 40 paintings for the class to see critiqued.
The above painting was a preparation for class to illustrate the design principle of Harmony. It also was used to introduce the idea of the Golden Mean and how it might be applied in composing a painting.
Using M. Graham’s richly pigmented watercolor paints, this painting was developed using the red and blue green complimentary colors . . . . .opposites on the color wheel and showing a possible way of relating the opposing / contrasting colors and values via the small colored lines across the picture plane. On the red side, the blue green, blues, and greens were employed in the little line strips to relate to the other side of the painting where the same colors appeared in the rectangular shape. And, conversely, the strips within that shape were colored in the colors that appear in the big square shape on the left. The objective was to relate the two sides.
George Post, a famous California Regionalist painter from the past taught his classes to “paint relationships.” That is bucket full of words which sailed right over my head the first time I heard them. But now, after many years of painting, I could not agree more! Relating dissimilar things by emphasizing their similarities, or imposing similarities, as I did in the above painting, is what Post meant. It helps bring a unity to the painting and offers the artist seven different avenues to approach imposing some sort of relationship . . . . .through the use of line, size, shape, direction, color, value or texture. As you can see, line and color were used to impose something of a relationship between the contrasting spaces in the above painting.
It was a big lesson for everyone, including me! It took me many years of painting to come to this understanding so I could express it in words and show it visually, too. A breakthrough!

Getting on the Horse

“Hobbie Horse Dreams”
Watercolor-18 x 24 inches
In a few days I am off to teach a workshop on composition. And I have not painted in a while. I am rusty . . .a little out of practice.
A few days ago (see last post) I went to the studio to ‘sling paint’ and loosen up. I did that and more . . .I started the above painting using a derivation of a shape I had used before in an abstract painting. I liked the shape, so, what the heck: Let’s build another abstract.
You might be thinking just have at it and see what comes, right? Nope! It is way bigger and more complex than that.
For me to do one of these takes days and often weeks. It is the best way I know of to get on the horse of painting again and put the brain into full gallup.
As I see it, any painting is about composing all the elements (line, size, shape, direction, color, value and texture) into a whole where the sum is greater than the parts. It is a process of choosing one or two large shapes and fitting them into the rectangular format in a pleasing way . . . . .but then the fun starts: Edges need to play off one another, textures need to be created, varied and changed yet be related in some way. Unity must be the result with contrasts and harmonies derived from all the parts: Hard vs soft, red vs green, dark vs light, etc. Value transitions and movements must be created in order to lead the eye on a path through the painting.
My rule is never do the same thing twice. For example, I may use a teal color (three times in this painting) but I force variation in each repetition. There are two small teal shapes and one teal line. One of the shapes has been lightened and made opaque while another is textured over with a tone . . . .so you see the teal shape, but know immediately it is different. The kicker is to drill one’s self to make each mark feel as though it has ‘membership’ or belongs to the others. When that is done well, interest rises.
I will grant that someone there in cyber land won’t like this painting. Maybe someone will say it is tooooo much! Too contrasty or too dark or too edgy or too something. That is okay by me. Every painting, successful or not, is a learning trial. That is to say, if the artist goes about making art via continuous experimentation and exploration to see what will happen . . . . .eventually that artist will excel at his or her art and most likely pass other established artists.
The trick is to get on the horse and ride like the wind. Put the spurs on and go as fast and as hard as one is able. The cool thing about getting on is this: If you fall off this horse, no one gets hurt!

Experimentation and Inspiration

“Oaks on a Wall”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches
Often, in execution of the lessons I give in classes and workshops, I am distracted from a deep inspiration to create a specific painting. Other kinds of distractions come up, too, but all of them frequently take me off that inspired track. That is one good reason for taking a week away from everyone and everything to just concentrate on painting. Such was the case a few weeks ago in Yosemite.

Returning to class from Yosemite, I had to give a mindless demo of different ways to create textures or to give a sense of surface in a painting. I say mindless because it was simply a blank piece of paper and a bunch of different examples of stamping, lifting, spraying, splattering, smudging, dripping etc . . . .all with no image or intention of making a painting.

Meanwhile, in the back of my mind was a vision I had seen through the eyes of a zoom lens . . . .the face of one of the sheer granite walls towering hundreds of meters above my place on the valley floor. Full grown trees grew out of cracks on the stone! Yet those trees and the abstract patterns in the rock had me buzzing inside.

I took the demo sheet home and began experimenting with more textures and colors and ‘stuff’ just to see what I could come up with that **might** suggest those walls and their abstractions on that same sheet . . .just slobbering layer over layer.

Often, it is the coming together of sheer experimentations and the visions from inspired ideas that create works which arrest a viewer and hold their interest . . . .much more that a tired scene of something everyone knows.

Clearly, to be different, one must do different things at the easel. The painter must allow the paint to act like paint rather than conform to some notion about looking like something else. Experiments can show us painters new ways to consider our beautiful mediums. In fact, I believe most of our work as artists must be connected to experimenting.

Painting Relationships

“Life on the Edge”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches
New painters are usually held in absolute hypnotic focus on the details of a subject. That seems to end in frustration most often. That frustration comes when ‘something isn’t quite right’ and the painter cannot identify what it is.

It usually has to do with relationships. What relationships, you ask?

How red might behaves next to green will be different than how it behaves next to, say for example, violet. How one value reads next to a darker value might be quite different in how it might read next to a more medium value. In other words, everything in every painting reads in the context in which it lies. If a triangle shape is the only triangle in a group of many circles, the triangle will seem way out of place, or will absolutely draw the eye due to its’ difference. (contrast!)

As I was painting this piece, the tops of the dark cypress (seen over the edge of the ridge and between the face of the big bluff) they drew the eye away from the focal point at the top left of the painting. Not good! So . . .how to fix it? It was merely a value relationship problem: the bluffs were lighter in value then . . .I had established a contrast that wasn’t consistent with the rest of the painting. Darken the cliff face . . .and keep the color contrasts at a minimum . . .was the solution.

Several difficulties like this arose all through this painting. The beach and the edges along the foam and sand were dangerously distracting the eye, also. Again, value differences and sharply defined edges (sudden value changes) pulled the eye away from what was important in the painting. The beach is meant as a quiet area to rest the eye, not attract it. The white of the foam had to be calmed, the edges blurred, the values brought closer were all slight but significant adjustments that were needed for all the different pieces in that area to relate and act as a whole, rather than individual parts.

Contrasts are what make a painting work, but building harmonies with them and setting up transitions and gradations between contrasts is a great challenge. It goes beyond painting “things” and “details.” As artists, our charge is to paint relationships.

Stretching Muscle

watercolor, 15 x 11 inches
When we don’t exercise, muscles atrophy. Not good. Exercise is important.

There are times in the studio when one needs to exercise the creative muscle, if, for nothing else, to regain it’s strength . . . . . and to experience something new . . . even if it doesn’t come out right.

Early yesterday morning, I was busy working on a lesson for a class. This idea came to mind as a way to break open barriers to doing something new and different. My classes are encouraged to CREATE. And I attempt to give the participants access to some possible paths they might employ to start the creative thought process. Those hints lie in the seven elements of design, Line, Size, Shape, Direction, Color, Value and Texture.

In this exercise, I took each of the elements and asked myself “What could I do with______? (Insert one or more elements). First, I decided on a dominance which had to pervade the picture space . . . .that, of course, sets up the environment for contrasts and harmonies. Here I chose a yellow green dominance (color) with violet contrasts. Also, I sought an angular dominance (line and shape). By subdividing the shapes into angular ‘shards’ (shape) I created a repetition which set texture dominance. You can also see a diagonal dark crossing the vertical composition which adds other contrasts (value, color and direction).

Some wonder about the disappearance of ‘spontaneity’ in this kind design planning. All the above paragraph does is set a framework under which the artist can explore different design choices. By doing so, the artist assures a degree of success while stretching the imagination. The outcome is that the artist can see more easily the results of interrelationships of the elements. It is in that stretching, exploration and acquiring new experience that can contribute a spontaneous insertion of *knowledge* into future works. All paintings cannot be masterpieces, but they can certainly be part of the cumulative experience which leads to anticipating outcomes and, thus, mastery

Answering The Creative Urge

“Fragments of an Idea”
watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
I enjoy doodling. That is sitting and mindlessly pushing a pencil to create little visual thoughts. I think many people doodle unconsciously . . .like when they are in conversation on the phone. There just doesn’t *seem* to be any artistic direction happening there. Or, does there?

My opinion is that doodles are often ideas trying to be expressed. It might be the subconscious trying to tell the conscious mind that there is something afoot . . . an idea is brewing. So, why don’t more artists consider those ideas as something to develop on canvas or paper?

Returning from a trip last weekend, I sat in front of the TV and discovered an urgent need to have a pencil and paper in my hands. Grabbing a scratch pad and pen, I started doodling. Soon, I was playing with flat shapes . . . .overlapping them, shading them, stacking them . . . .just fiddling with no intent other than to see what showed up.

The next thing I knew was one was speaking to me with “paint me!” written all over it. So I began it. For three days I have worked on this piece to develop it at the easel. With nothing to look at other than the doodle, the mental gymnastics ensued. One finds quickly what design concerns are when confronted with working out a non objective painting . . .and why it is soooo important to understand the ins and outs of sound design.

The very issues that tease us artists in making ANY painting of ANY subject successful come quickly to confront the artist in non objective work. Whether a subject is realistic or not, how it fits into the rectangle, how all the parts relate or conflict and how the eye works through the piece are only parts of the whole puzzle in any painting. Non objective work gives the artist no hints. It all has to come from the thoughts and intuition of the artist. It is mental exercise of very high order. Whether this one fails or succeeds, what counts is the strengthening of creative muscles through the exercise and answering the creative urge.

No monkey or kindergartener could do this, regardless of what some uninformed lay people might think or say.


“Cottonwood Homestead
posted in July

“Cottonwood Homestead” Improved
oil on cavas, 16″ x 20″

Have you ever done a painting, accepted it as done and went back a few weeks later to see it had **changed** ?

What are these mysterious gremlins at work on our paintings? Somehow, they manage to modify shapes, change the colors, put strokes in the paintings that I KNOW I never did. How does this happen.

Maybe I should pose these questions another way. Why was I so bloody blind when I was painting it? That is the real question!!

I have several paintings leaning against my easel which MUST be revised. I can see now what I could not see when I was painting them. It must be the incubation process. That is to say, like hens eggs, they must incubate quietly under warm conditions, then they hatch. Paintings have a similar character. We don’t really get to see them in the state they will be living until they have “incubated.” . . . . . .Or, been out of our vision for a period of time. . . . . How Long? . . . . . . . . Maybe as long as a year or more. Most times, though, it is usually a few weeks. Then I see the errors in color, shape, value, texture and direction. You can see in this painting of the poplars that it was rather blah. The sky was too yellow, the trees washed out, there wasn’t enough contrast of value, the color of the trees was wrong and they were leaning to the left. The more I looked at the painting, the more I itched to fix it.

So, here are the results, such as they are. I am much happier with the piece, but my mind’s vision is still a distance away from the outcome (that never changes, incidentally). As artists who are constantly looking for improvement in our work, I think our minds grow much faster than we realize. Perhaps that is why we can see the faults in our work in a matter of a few weeks.

Personally, I am very thankful for the constant change in my mental perspective. Incubation affords me to see the errors of my skills then consciously make improvements. How else does an artist grow?

The Big Argument

“Still Life #71”
watercolor on Arches paper, 15″ x 22″
The art world is filled with artists who believe that the subject of a painting is what makes its worthiness. I vehemently disagree!

A subject or object or group of objects is nothing more than a beginning point for a startling, captivating design. Mind you this could be a landscape, portrait, still life or what have you. It does not matter. It is the interaction of line, direction, color, value, shape and texture that arouses us. Granted, that is an abstract way to think, but it is precisely what happens.

The word “PICTURE” has crept so deeply into our vocabulary that we synonymously connect the word to a mental image of a photograph, or an image of SOME THING OR PLACE. Pictorial accuracy seems to be some critics’ measure of ‘good art.’ I disagree again . . .and loudly! It isn’t the picture or the thing or the realism that is so wonderful in a painting. . . . .

It is what the artist does with the paint to lure the viewer into the concentrated observance of the art and the surface. While an image does provide a starting point for shapes and value structure, it is not the exactness or the accuracy of those things that entertain us as art viewers. Matisse proved this over and over. So did Van Gogh and the Impressionists. There is beauty in the paint! There is emotion and mood in the colors, values, textures and directions. What counts is what the viewer FEELS while viewing the work. Just get a look at “Crows Over a Corn Field” or “Starry Night” and you’ll get what I am saying immediately.

Yes, realism can and does communicate a feeling. BUT, that feeling does not come from the accuracy of the work. It comes from how big dark and light differences are arranged. It comes from the artist’s use of color and texture. Hopper’s work is a perfect example of this. His mood of melancholy and emptiness hits a viewer hard, but it seems to be ‘accuarate.” Some of Winslow Homer’s work had strong threatening feelings and sense of danger. And those paintings were in watercolor! The “happy medium.” Riiight! His and Hopper’s designs were absolutely deliberately set to affect MOOD or “content.”

There are plenty of artists out there who can reproduce a photograph. So what!? How many millions of photos are there in the world? How many have you seen that you vividly remember? Few, if any, is my bet. (Mind you, art photos are something else all together. I am speaking of the every day snapshots that are slavishly copied.) Yet, when a painter builds up color and texture on a surface and it is remindful of, or directly stating something about, a subject with both drama and subtlety, we are engaged with it. It holds our interest because the image or the arrangement of color, value and texture are so unusual and unique. It is this uniqueness that holds the viewer’s attention. . . . . .not the fact that the painter was able to make a pretty “picture.”

As a painter, I work in series. Maybe not as faithfully as some artists, but series work draws out boredom and forces the artist to create something more than representation of a subject. It is through using the same beginning idea over and over and over again . . . .this still life set up for example . . . . . . . .that the artist is forced to make something different each time he paints it. That purpose or that cause is what brings to light the strength of his work. It is the stuff that comes from within . . . .the stuff that sets his or her work apart from all other artwork or images which entertain us as viewers. It is what he or she does to stimulate contrasts and harmonies. It is what her or she does to deliver a sense of space or surface that holds our interest. It boils down to how the colors and values react to serve up visual stimulation. That is the CREATIVE aspect of the work.

This idea of making something different is the frustrating part of making art. (Not the only one, though! There are plenty more frustrations!) We, as humans, tend to be easily influenced by other artists methods or “the how” or what we believe to be “the rules.” All those things make creating new, different art even more difficult. They influence us to avoid showing that which we would do without coaching. By the virtue of that point alone, when an artist creates something unique, which especially connects with our emotions, then we MUST honor the work. That artist probably went through mental hell getting there.

And that brings up another aspect of making art that gets in the artists’ way . . . . .the desire to make a masterwork. And how trying too hard locks us up. But that is another subject for another day.