Breaching Fear

“Just Plane Spilled”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

After a long layoff of painting abstracts/nonobjective paintings, I began to wonder if I could, indeed, do it again. Painting linemen, stilllifes, teaching, presiding over a large national watercolor association, working part time, etc. all take their toll on developing one’s skills in the art world. My dear wife has been challenging me to do more of these kinds of works. Alas, I am as most of the other artists I know . . . . .afraid I might not be able to do it once again.

We all fear failure and, worse, going public with it. There is that ever lurking voice “Forget it! You never had it in the first place. Those others were an accident when you really had it. you’ve lost the touch,” etc. etc. One must step up and face it head on, if for nothing else but to once again be able to say, “yes, I CAN.”
What a difference in how life tastes when we can say that. Right?

I have had a sketch of an interesting composition taped to my easel for over a year. The day I painted the last painting of linemen (see last post) I decided to take the challenge. Working at it some four to six hours per day (every day save two) has gotten this piece to this place.
It is a fine effort to take on something like this because it forces one to focus on the elements and principles with nothing more to use as a reference, except for the initial shapes of the composition. Then it is a matter of subtle adjustments of value transitions, textures, movements, shapes, tangents, convergences, not to mention color dominances and harmonies. In other words, I have found that painting a piece like this takes every bit of design knowledge and calls into play techniques and color skills which have been developed over a long time. . . . . . . .and all of these can become stale if not used.
The last comment is that this sort of work is pure creativity. Copying, referencing, emulating, reproducing or mimicking cannot be part of this kind of painting. it all must come from within and from the hints the painting offers as the painter moves forward.
Now I can go back to my linemen and put some of these ideas to work . . . but wait! I have another abstract piece that I must complete first!
Yes, I CAN!!!!!!!

Tapping Into “That Place”

“Sienna Linemen”
watercolor and Conte Crayon 22 x 30 inches
If you read the last post, it was about how this subject has reached me under my conscious self . . . . . that is, the idea of making something powerful and interesting is nagging at me both while awake and asleep.
That level of ‘concern’ or ‘obsession’ or ‘compulsion’ is healthy for us artists, I believe. It becomes a drive or a motivation which cannot be explained (unless you are a psychiatrist). It is healthy because it eventually bolsters confidence to do something . . . .anything! Once begun a flow begins. It may take multiple tries and attempts, but the soul insists that we continue.
After finishing one painting today, I was determined to do another, more simplified piece focusing on Line, Shape and Value. I had several sketches on my desk lying around the computer on all sorts of documents and scraps of paper (organized, eh?!). I grabbed them and headed for the studio after finishing my last post.
On a large sheet, I began . . . .but swore I would draw from the balls of my feet instead of my fingers . . . . .I would get full swing of my arm while in the motions of drawing . . . not flailing about, you understand, but putting some big, strong shapes on the page and doing it sans concern for accuracy. Then I took up my conte crayon and began with strong, heavy black line.
With a two inch stiff bristle brush I quickly carved in some value washes . . . and without concern for color. Just two siennas and a bit of ultramarine blue. I was seeking flat shapes and a strong, large value shape which established the composition . . . . .so I kept the values fairly close as I put in the big shapes. The entire thing took less than 45 minutes and (it seems) I have a strong start at finding that ONE piece that will stand above the rest.
More work is needed, of course, but if progress like this continues, a really good one should pop into existence soon. (that is if I can get the time to paint!)

Oh Cee Dee !

“The Bucket Crane”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

“Leaning Out”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

“Two Hardhats”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

Yes, OCD! Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I think I have it. Maybe not full tilt, but I certainly act it, now and then. I wonder if it is something I eat. . . . .

I have been ruminating for a few months on how to simplify my linemen paintings and take them into another dimension. That isn’t the part that is OCD. I finally decided, after a brief visit with Christopher Schink, that I would resort to playing with big flat shapes, with very little detail. All one needs do, is look at Schink’s masterworks and one would immediately understand my choice to begin there. I certainly don’t wish to copy his approach,(as if anyone could!). (Obviously a master, he is, eh?!). Instead, just focusing on big flat shapes will lead me to value and color approaches as well as texture and line.
These linemen are super subjects to play with because of the shapes they can generate when connected to their work and / or equipment. As you saw a few days ago, Dear Reader, I sketched 19 of the rascals and came up with some interesting abstractions of value and shape. I developed more sketches . . .near 40 now . . . . . . so, it is time to see where I can go with paint. Working this subject in series is bound to shake out some new, appealing ideas.
The OCD part comes in during my dreams! . . . . . not wanting to do anything except paint! I find 3AM seems to be my wake up time when in this OCD mode . . . .and definitely NOT on purpose! I just can’t stop thinking about this stuff. So, it awakens me . . .even when sick or exhausted. So, I get out of bed and go to the studio to try some of my ideas and experiments.
Here are a few trial paintings. Mind you, these are just trials. When taking a 3 x 4 inch sketch up to 22 x 30 inch painting, spaces can look very empty and boring if not paid their due attention. These trials are to get a feel for the ideas in paint (usually on the back of some old, failed painting) then make some key decisions about design, then develop the paintings seriously. I have to shake the Schink influence and stick to my own vision . . . .and that, it seems is the cause of my OCD. I can’t leave these thoughts alone!
More later . . . . . .obviously!! 😉

Making Value Studies




I just returned from giving a workshop in Sonoma County in California. It was one of those great ones! Intense. Everyone pitching in and enthused to learn. Everyone doing the exercises.

My workshops are all about building a solid foundation of design. We don’t paint pretty pictures just like the instructor. The lessons and exercises are powerful, insightful and full of challenge.
In coaching everyone and thinking about what I might do with my next paintings, I began to develop a craving to be at my easel. Ideas were sprinting through my mind!
If you have followed this blog, you may recall that last November I was working on Linemen as a subject. I felt these held a lot of promise for developing a unique and interesting series.
Exhausted from the workshop and spinning all sorts of images in my mind last night, I awoke at 3AM and could not sleep for all the ideas that were presenting themselves . . .and I was coming down with a nasty cold. So, I got up, grabbed my sketch book and a cup of hot coffee and went to work on the ideas.
I am looking to make these figures flat and to include some judicious use of line to enhance the image. Also, I have ideas for color schemes which may add some interesting mood. But first, I must work out the value abstractions. That is what these sketches are about: Isolating shapes of light arbitrarily, revising shapes, considering the ratio of Lights, Darks and Mediums. Additionally, trying to make some interesting shapes which will spice up the composition. In other words, making as many alternatives as I could dream up.
On one set of sketches I included two helmets to make a unique shape of white. In another set, I kept but one helmet shape and concentrated on shape and value within the single figure. Click on the pages if you want a closer look at the minor changes I made.
Surely there are more alternatives, but this will be a good start to get to the easel and try a few of them. I can imagine that I could be painting for the next several months (or years!) on this series, since it offers so much potential.

Sometimes I play

“Bottom of the Dome II”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches

Sometimes I Play . . . .

So, but now, you know I am having Open Studio this coming weekend and the net weekend from 10AM to 5PM (Oct 9,10 and 16,17) . . . .

You also know I have been painting a lot these last two weeks when I should be doing chores . . . .but I am finished with that stuff for now. So, it is time to PLAY!! Yes, you read it right: P L A Y!

My form of play has to do with challenging myself to some outrageous (maybe not this time) or challenging art “reach.” What I mean by “reach” is to do something I do not normally do . . . .in other words, try something new and different, where I have to reach to make it work.

I learned to reach when I did a series of 100 + still life paintings, all of the same set up and same point of view. The project forced me to focus on doing something other than copying the subject. Namely, to concentrate on shape, color, value, texture and line instead of the subject itself. My challenge typically is to narrow down some aspect of one or more of those jest mentioned elements. For example, instead of copying what something looks like, such as a tree, I will take on the challenge of shape design through the entire painting.

In this painting, shape design was definitely at the top of the list, as was line. I set out to use line as a source of entertainment and to make flat, angular shapes. A ‘good’ shape is not symmetrical and has a notable direction. Each shape bounded by the orange lines follows those two ideals. There is more to it, though; something enters the equation called “dominance.” In this case as you examine the outlines of each shape, there is an angular nature to all but a very few. That angular characteristic adds a familial similarity to all the shapes which brings about a sense of belonging . . . . . . .often referred to as repetition, this aspect of angularity ‘dominates’ the overall picture space. Had this aspect been left to be random, chaos would have ensued and the painting would have had a confused look about it. There is room for a few shapes with gentle curves, which add some subtle contrast and interest to the repeated character of the shapes.

This was simply plain fun to paint! The dazzling color, the hyped up contrast of color against dark, the zippy and often vibrating red orange line and the passage of blue violet through the piece excites the eye in many ways. I had done a piece like this a year ago and caught myself mentally revisiting what I had done. I caught myself hopping up and down with excitement as this piece neared completion.

Sometimes, you just have to play.

Haste, Balance and Adjustments

“Hobby Horse Dreams”
Watercolor 18 x 24 inches

Today, just as I am readying to depart to an NWS board of directors meeting, I kept noticing that I had a problem with my last painting.

This time of year is always difficult for me because it is a time of hurrying to complete many things in short time allotments. Open Studio at my home will be held October 9,10 and 16,17. The haste to accomplish all the framing and preparations to make that event happen without hitches is always a challenge.
As usual, I framed pieces I have painted in the last year. This piece, which you saw in the last post, was standing in its frame in our living room . . . . . .and while it stood there, it was as if a big hook and yelling voice was attempting to catch me. The piece was out of balance!
See the last post and observe the left 1/4 of the painting. That area was morose, dark and the only area like it in the painting. That area seemed as though it did not belong with the rest of the painting (striving for unity!). Also, the white shape seemed to be too far biased to the right . . .that is most of the weight of the shape was on the right. Something needed to happen to this piece! Something subtle yet effective enough to upset the current unbalanced nature of the piece.
I had to remove it from the frame, mat, glass etc. Then it had to go back to the easel for adjustments and some needed new elements of line. You can see the vertical / oblique wavy lines were added . . .but no change in balance. The Blue ‘dart’ was added to help direct the eye, but the piece was still out of balance. ( I wasn’t just guessing. I knew what had to happen: the left quarter needed a hint of white to pull the eye back toward the left and to compensate for the right biased weight of the big white shape.) The lines and dart were needed elements for interest.
Darn! Wasted time! Not really.
Having learned the hard way too many times, it seems to me that a good painter never rushes to conclusions in finalizing any painting . . . pending shows or whatever the reason. I have, several times, framed paintings and put them in a show only to be embarassed by what I completely missed seeing. Good paintings need time to be digested and reconsidered. More often than not, after a few weeks of resting, a painting will reveal its inner workings and problems as the painter relaxes from the angst of the act of painting. I believe this to be part of the natural order of making art. You just cannot rush it. Many students find they cannot paint well in workshops. This is part of the reason. Good composition requires reflection, observation and thought. . . . . . and not just for a few minutes. Those tiny adjustments can often make or break a painting. And they may not reveal themselves for long periods. It is a matter of being patient and letting the mind dwell quietly on the composition. The painting process is not always won by the swift, but to those who remain in the struggle to compose carefully.
Moral: Put your pieces up in a corner where you can see them for an extended period before the “Finished” declaration is made.

On Composing

Preliminary Sketches
Composition Idea
Figuring the Large Shapes

The demo in my last post came out well. In my humble artistic opinion, it had less to do with the act of painting and a heckuvalot more to do with the initial planning and composing.

I won’t say that “anyone can copy what they see” because that is simply not true. But seeing is not always the best means of making something extraordinary out of a bunch of ‘things.’ Namely, trees, cliffs, colored succulent, rocks etc. It is much more a task of arrangement of shapes, shapes, values, colors, textures etc. It is in the arranging or composing those elements together that wonderful things happen.

It begins in the early sketches and assessing those sketches for design flaws, then, re-doing the sketches to account for the flaws, re-assessing and making still more changes. In that assessment process, I find that I must remove my thoughts from the subject and move to considering how the various shapes combine to form three to five large shapes and how those large shapes interrelate with the rectangle of the canvas or paper on which the painting is made.

That recent demo (last post) went through this very process. Once I was happy with the large shapes which connected the edges of my rectangle, I could insert and fit the ‘reality’ of the subject into it. It took some cramming, shortening, shrinking, expanding, squeezing, eliminating, adding . . . .well . . . .you get the idea . . . .the subject had to fit into the composed arrangement of large light and dark shapes. Looking at the sketch above, it boils down to an abstraction that is interesting to look at in its own right.

For you painters who are less experienced, the large dark shape that sprawls across this page is actually a combination of many items . . .trees, grasses, succulents, rocks, etc. It is in the act of painting that the artist must use caution and value control to insure that the large dark shape is still expressed through that combination of ‘stuff.’

It may seem like hard work to those who “just want to paint.” But, I believe that the disappointment which most often follows rushing into a painting is a big price to pay. . . . .especially, when we artists put our treasured sweat and tears into the act of painting. It is worth the effort and time to work out the composition first, then set about getting it all on to canvas or paper.

Last Touches

As usual, the painting in the last post was crying out to me about that big light valued shape jutting out from the painting. It was too ridgid, too edgy, too long, too “a lot of things.” It needed changing.

But how does one change something which, in many ways appears ‘right?’

I have learned over the years that if my gut is niggling at me about something in a painting, I should pay attention. So, I did.

A mere value change at the left end of that long shape . . .a lost edge here . . .a slightly cooler tinge at the far left of it, but warmer than the tone under it . . . then put it in. Oh! that changed how the other stuff around it reacted. So, a little wash over a shape or two to make them settle back and . . .there! I am calling it finished. My gut is quiet now.
PS . . .Some have asked “Did I do a sketch first?” Yep!! It didn’t have all the nuances in it, but most of the compositional arrangement of light and darker valued shapes were planned.

Color Play, Too.

“Sentinel Flats”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

I have a goofy, abstract side as well as a side of me that loves the implied realism which emerges when all of the elements and principles of design optimally meet.

That means that for ‘reality’ to emerge contrasts can’t get too far out of hand, shapes must be designed but recognizable, values must have their transitions and appropriate assignments. (by assignments, I mean that the dominant value of a region in the painting must have a dominance which seems to emulate reality.) And, of course, color has it’s place, too. Good color harmonies and gradations make all the difference in a well executed painting.

But!!! . . . . . .there are times when the playful side of me screams to get out. And . . .when that happens, just about anything will show up. In this case, it was more of what I had done earlier in the week at Yosemite. While Sentinel Rock was right out my back door, it’s shape is recognizable from all over the valley floor . . .and above the valley.

With sketchbook in hand in the mornings, I would draw from my previous sketches or paintings and redesign shapes . . .reorient their placement on the page . . .exaggerate or play down some shapes in order to call attention to something special. Set the values so the overall composition worked well, then set about painting it.

I just HAD to Play with color, too! Using a rigger brush with pure Perinone Orange (a brilliant red orange), I lined out all the shapes completely eliminating detail. Focus on shape, value and color. Period. Painting the inner parts of the outlined shapes in opaque gouache, holding down the intensity of the colors until the center of interest, where I played up the saturation, this was the outcome. Yep! It’s different, but definitely Yosemite.

By the way, if shape design is of interest to you, check out Peggy Stermer Cox’s blog (click here). (Check out her “Still Life with A Pony” images. What she does to keep a whisper of reality, yet make shapes leap out of the page is worthy of your time to go look. We could all learn much from her!

Self Portrait

“Self Portrait”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
Responding to David Lobenberg’s challenge of making a self portrait, I jumped in with both feet as I have been thinking of taking on portraits as a distraction from my usual fare.

So, I did.

Something about the usual portraits has always troubled me . . . .that is that many artists are so wrapped up in the details of the face, that they miss the value abstraction possibilities and the interest created by non symmetrical shapes. Mind you, I am not speaking of noses, chins, foreheads and that sort of shape. I am speaking of the shapes of the various VALUES of the light. In my book, it is the pattern of light on the face which makes a portrait much more powerful.

But what do I know? I don’t paint portraits. I slapped this one out in about two hours and realized that there is a lot to learn about color in portraiture. Temperature and intensities make huge differences in the painting of facial perspective.