Scratching the Itch

Photo 1.
Photo 2.

Photo 3.

Photo 4.

Photo 5.

Photo 6.

“Noon at Walnut Ave.”
oil on canvas panel, 12 x 16 inches

On my third painting trip to Walnut Ave, I saw for the first time!

You think that’s silly? I walked this street at noon almost daily all the while I was in high school! I drive through the street often. My mom lives nearby. I take guests down that street to see it. On my third painting trip, I suddenly saw it differently . . .and made a huge realization. I saw big, amorphous, individual shapes in the canopy of trees over the street. Wow!!

So, here is a progress documentary of how this painting developed . . . .The decision was made to double the painting size, affording more room to express shape, color and texture.

Photo 1. First, the space division problem from yesterday had to be resolved. The sketch was roughed in using transparent oxide red. This is where I spotted the individual shapes in the canopy. Thin color washes were thrown in using a lot of mineral spirits so to set up a progression from warms to cools to the end of the ‘tunnel.’

Photo 2. Continuing with the thin washes I get excited at the progression of yellow greens to grayed blues down the tunnel. I am becoming aware of another possible space division issue with the band of white light on the street surface across the width of the painting. What to do?

Photo 3. A few warm spots, such as the stop sign and a few points toward the end of the tunnel are put in and a few suggested darks are placed into the under side of the canopy. The warm red tones are such a contrast to the green that they act as parenthesis around the white shape at the end of the tunnel, the center of interest. Perfect! I am getting more excited, but the space division issue needs to be resolved soon.

Photo 4. Now the thicker paint layers are put into the greens and other places. Am conscious of the strokes and their direction as each is placed. They help define the light. A false start with the wrong tone is placed into the foreground shadow . . .it is too dark and too warm . . . .but that sets up the hint of what to do with the space division challenge.

Photo 5. Connect the shadows across that white shape! Link them, thus leading the eye directly back to the center of interest. Now the foreground “lights” are warmed up with a pale yellow and very light magenta (hard to see in the monitor) . . .thus bringing the foreground forward and setting up the recession into the tunnel. Edges are softened along the shadow exteriors and some of the interior ‘holes.’ The suggestion of a line of parked cars is begun.

Photo 6. Fine tuning now before it is time to fold up my easel to go home. I can see some places which need more fine tuning, such as the cool grays toward the end of the tunnel in the canopy. Will have to fiddle with that one, but not today. A few darks are added on the far left and the tree trunk is softened. Maybe that isn’t the correct move. Will need to re-evaluate that later, too.

Overall, this was a great day in plein air! I can feel the process becoming easier as I tackle more difficult tasks. This experience really slammed home the idea that one must truly OBSERVE and look again before diving into the obvious.

A Third and Final Attempt

SP-3
watercolor, 22 x 15 inches
Detail, SP-3
This is much better! But, before I go on, let me say this . . . . .this is definitely NOT about me. It is just a face and the answer to a painting challenge. Finally, it is always about learning. In the three SP’s (self portraits) I made substantial jumps in understanding a few things . . . but am a long way from being good at this.

I handled this portrait in a much different way . . .slowing down still more and thinking about design as well as color. . . .one might even say with more ‘sensitivity.’

Using an old technique (and some old manganese blue pigment) I hadn’t used for some time, I first defined the shadow shapes ( in this case one large shape from the top of the head all the way down the face onto the shoulder and off the page) with a huge brush, put down a granulating manganese blue wash. While it was still wet, I began charging in yellows and various reds and allowing them to run down the page (the painting was at or near 45 degree angle) over the granulating wash. That set the stage for lots of color variation and warm / cool transitions. After that wash was dry, making small glazes over small areas to darken and enhance differences in light and temperature. The eyeglasses are a great example of those sorts of subtlety. The end game was to resolve very subtle value and temperature changes in the light areas. The white shirt, for example was left white until the end, when a clear water wash was painted over much of the painting, but leaving the light on the face completely alone, which softened edges, improved transitions and knocked the white back enough that the whites in the face light ended up as being slightly lighter than the shirt.

That’s a long winded answer to how it was done.

And speaking of ‘done,’ I am soooo done with self portraits.

Oh! I forgot to mention that lump on my head. That’s where my wife smacked me for spending too much time in the studio!! ;-)) (Sure, Mike !! )

A Second Attempt

Self Portrait 2
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
This is the second attempt and far more finished than the first. I went to bed unsatisfied with the last one and had some different ideas on how to modifiy it . . . .among them more glazing.
The goals were the same to show the light pattern on the face rather than playing with details. One thing has become clear: to paint portraits well, the artist had better know how to use color extremely well. For this application, I have much to learn. This time I took my time and was much more considered in my moves. Surely you can see the differences from the two posts ago.

Color Tests

Pyrrol Red Tests
Click on image to see color results
watercolor 22 x 30 inches


Still Life – 92
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
Recently, I gave a workshop to the Sierra Watercolor Society on color. The 20 people who took that workshop had not a single moment of lighthearted play during the 3 days. They worked extremely hard to understand color, color relationships, harmonies and, of course, color mixing. M. Graham of West Linn, Oregon made paints available to the workshop so everyone could see the value of extra fine pigments and how they behave on the palette and all get the same results. A salute to the Grahams, Art and Diana, would be minimizing the value of their contribution to these artists and myself. To see the lights come on and the realizations dawn for these artists is absolute pleasure to witness. As the three days progressed, I could see a fluency develop in every single participant. I wish the Grahams could have seen the outcome!

They sent a few of their new colors for me to try. One was Pyrrol Red. I haven’t the slightest idea what the derivation of that color is, but I certainly squeezed as much from that color as I could in determining how it would behave ‘under fire.’

From what I could tell, (see the above chart) it seemed to reside at or very near the 9 o’clock position on the color wheel, midway between orange-red and quinacridone rose (primary red). As you can see, I tested it’s wheel position and validated it’s relationship with other colors. Compared to Cadmium Red, this color is absolutely transparent and brilliant in intensity. I am VERY tempted to put Cad Red aside as this color mixes so beautifully with others and dries with that same brilliance. I need to assess it a bit further before I give up such a stalwart pigment such as Cad Red . . . . .but I am certainly leaning in that direction.

Following the tests, I made another design in the series of still lifes I have been playing with over the last few years. I used Pyrrol Red throughout the painting to make the sienna tones, the greens, the violets and the darks, as well as the semi-neutral reds (browns). The paint performed marvelously!

All the while the testing was going on in the painting, I was mentally busy exploiting more design possibilities in the painting. After 90 some paintings on the same theme, one would think I would run out of ideas, but they just keep coming . . .though much more slowly. More about that later.

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.

The Sketch and The Urge

“Almost There”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches
There are curious times for us artists. We have strange urges, sometimes. Those urges have to do with compelling images trying to come out.

This sketch has been in my sketch book for many months . . .probably a year. And every time I go near it, it calls to me. I could feel the emotion of it, but could not put my finger on the sort of color scheme I needed. Then, on a rare quiet moment, alone in my studio while in North Carolina last month, I could stand it no longer. Out came my largest flat brush and lots of reds. I painted furiously and put in the directions, big movements and large shapes. . . . .and I made some serious errors . . . .Edges for one. And there was one edge on a shadow which rode the edge of the path that simply came from bad judgment.

I kept the painting around for weeks. Looked and looked and looked at it without resolution. Then, today, I decided something had to be done . . . .that urge to complete it was nagging. There is no model or place to seek for correction. It is all an abstract notion that came into a sketch.

It sure isn’t much when it comes to being a fancy, recognizable place, but it sure does speak to me at a level I have yet to put my finger on. And in a mat, it just slays me!!

Do you suppose it’s the reds?

Another Shake Down

“Vessels”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
This painting is the result of taking a few simple ideas and pushing them to shake down any problems and to see what comes out.

Beginning with an under-painting of orange, quinacridone gold and blue, I set about drawing image over image over image over image . . . .much like I had done in the previous two posts . . . . .on top of the painting of the abstract color arrangement. I chose to have the colors dominantly warm with cool accents.

Also, from each position of drawing the image, I changed the height of my point of view, from looking up at the still life set up, to looking straight at it, to looking down upon it. Then, just for giggles, I put a piece of reflective silver mylar partially under and behind the set up which added some repeated shapes in the form of wobbly reflections. Once the line drawing was finished, I left the still life model in another room where I could not see it. My interests were to create shapes by the interweaving and overlapping line drawings and to utilize the warm / cool underpainting as light variations in the painting. By randomly glazing over parts of the painting and implying light from the far left, I wanted to see what sort of design would emerge. Eventually, this design began to take on its own personality. The pitcher appeared in places and merged with the Madonna figure in others. The Madonna figure formed much of the repetition and rhythms in the piece.

I was very cautious (over three days) with this piece not to push the value contrasts too harshly. I believe the darkest dark is but a medium value. By keeping the values more closely aligned, without using white at all, the characteristic differences in the colors used became the prominent interest in the piece. That is, the colors shift from near perfet neutral to slightly increasing intensities, which gives some areas of the painting a feeling of luminosity. That luminous characteristic seems to add a spiritual mood to this painting along with some ambiguity and mystery.

Stretching Muscle

“Shards”
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

Taking Chances . . .Again

“Backwash”
watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
Having just received a shipment of new paper (never tried this type before now) from England, I just HAD to take the most unfamiliar type and put it to the test . . . .or, shall I say, to many tests?
Waterford paper, made by St. Cuthberts Mill in the UK, is quite beautiful in its whiteness and its textures. The finish they make on cold press and rough are really lovely. But how well does it take a wash or glaze or . . .how does it work wet into wet . . .or if the paint is scrubbed in with a bristle brush? How well or easily does paint lift? And what of the edges? Can the image be manipulated after a base layer has been laid down? What becomes of the paper surface in vigorous lifting? And, what happens to the color when the sizings and chemistry of the paper’s structure mix with various pigments?
The heavy package arrived from England late last week. I had never seen shipped paper packaged so well! It arrived without a single sheet being even slightly tweaked! I couldn’t use it right away because I was working on the last painting posted . . .remember? The one that was taking all the time with so many glazes. Maybe the distraction of wanting to paint on that wonderful new paper was enough to cause the slaughter of that painting. I know I *wanted* badly to get to it and try it.
So, here is the very first piece . . . .Waterford 200lb cold press. That’s right: two hundred pound! Yummy paper. I took every risk I knew of to challenge the surface and try to find the achilles heel of the paper. I washed, glazed, scrubbed, lifted, scraped, pushed, tarnished and did everything I could to see what would happen. And, WOW!! It responds so beautifully and continues to show off the glorious character of the paper itself. The transparency of the colors works better on this paper than any I have tried to date. The white water with a slight cool wash just glows in this piece. (P.S. The lower right corner is orange in the photo because of a lighting goof.)
In all, I am extremely pleased with how well this paper responds! Now to find a source for it here in the USA.

INCUBATION

“Cottonwood Homestead
posted in July


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

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?