Fixing a Big Problem


“The Overseer”
Watercolor 22 x 30 inches
After finishing my painting, “The Overseer,” last week I was perplexed by the total lack of color variation in the shadows and the harsh contrast in the painting. I worked hard on Photoshop to try to correct the problem to no avail. After much consideration, I decided to repaint the entire painting. There were a few small compositional fixes I could make, such as the fire hydrant in the foreground and the dark car on the left margin. Both needed to be moved inboard a bit. But those were the least of the problems. My biggest difficulty was what was happening inside my expensive camera . . . .
I have learned from a photographer friend that digital cameras average and compress the exposure data in a picture. That is, the necessary aperture setting for white areas are smaller, or less exposure time is needed, than for black. When an image has both white and black, as well as middle values, the camera must measure what is required for the extremes and average them to affect an acceptable exposure. The problem is that in that averaging, much of the collected data is compressed and some is actually discarded in order to arrive at a JPEG image. In that process, any subtle color shifts are typically lost.
So my problem was two fold: I had exposure problems and a painting problem where I had not expressed the necessary color variation well enough and had too large of a value interval (black to white) in the painting. Both had to be fixed. I went back to the easel vowing to keep my goals of keeping value extremes to a cautious minimum and to put more recognizable color variation into the painting. I could not go into that state of ecstasy that takes us painters away to another planet for as long as we are applying the paint. I had to stay alert.
In the end, the painting was an improvement over the first one. The difficulty then was to find out how to get around all that compression and averaging inside the camera. I found the solution in photographing in “RAW” mode. That is, every pixel is recorded as is, in Red, Green or Blue, without modifying or averaging the data. I have found that most professional photographers use this mode for that very reason. I had some studying to do to learn about this and to decipher my expensive camera to be able to pull it off.
I often marvel about how much I have had to learn about other stuff than painting in order to produce a decent painting, or photo of one. I have been struggling with photo issues for decades! Then there is the other stuff, too, like priming canvas, or the mediums in which different paints are suspended, or comosition, or what ever . . . .which I won’t go into here. It all has to work in concert.
Surely, you can see the difference in the two versions above. Do you think I was right to step up and re-tackle the whole thing?

And Another . . . .

“Merced Gold”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
Thsi subject is simply terrific for putting strong compositions together. The shapes really lend themselves to commanding and dominating the picture space . . . . .everything else in the painting is just support of that one idea. Which, incidentally, is how all good paintings should be . . . elegantly simple.
Just look at Sargent’s works . . . .not a lot of extra stuff . . . . just simple shapes of figures or buildings . . .and generally they beguile the viewer because of the light and the way the shapes occupy the picture space.
This big rock is a large as a small house in reality. And its shape and edges are fascinating. I love the way the white sits in the yellow dominant field. The yellow provides such a feeling of light and season.
Am still ‘at it’ as I am putting nearly three paintings a day away. There is more to see! Stay tuned!

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!!!!!!!

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!! 😉

Conflicting Urges

“Yosemite Humpback”

watercolor, 22 x 30 inches

I just finished this piece. It was a challenge in color management because I first tinted the paper with yellow. As you already know, the addition of violet would be grayed and any blues would appear green. So, I had to play with pigments to get the desired effects of a sunny haze.

As I am preparing for Open Studio, which happens Oct 9,10 and 16,17 here at home, I am often hammered with the desire to escape from all the work and just paint. Making this event happen is fully three to four weeks of continuous work from framing, to tidying, to building display facilities in the yard to sorting the piles of work to see what qualifies and what does not. Since I am not one who does well in boring tasks, this big chore pushes me every year close my eyes and forget it. I suppose, the deeply felt urge to paint is an excape . . . . .but I painted anyway. And it is a good thing I did. The act of painting, for most of the painters I know, is a positive energy tonic for us all. It felt so good, I just HAD to paint another . . . .which I will post later . . . .and have ideas for more.

Oh! You are invited to my open studio. If you didn’t receive a card in the mail, send me your address and I get one into the snail mail right away.

On Value Transitions

“Crumpled Considerations”
Watercolor 30 x 22 inches
Last week a gentleman inquired about my method in making these non objective paintings.
First a sketch. A simple sketch which shows two or three simple value shapes. Those different values must, in my mind, exist in a ratio of Large, medium and tiny. Which specific value group is one size or the other doesn’t matter. I happen to like a large lighter compositional shape which reaches for and touches at least three sides of the piece. The dark and medium values would surround the large shape.
Mind you, when I refer to “light,” it may mean several different light values . . . . . .that is lighter than everything else in the painting.
The big trick in putting this to paint is to first isolate the large light shape by blocking it in with various glazes of paint layers. The use of glazes assures variation and, if I am careful with different techniques, texture, too. Over several days, I will gradually begin to encroach on the big light shape along the edges, gradually changing value and color. By edges and the amount of encroachment, this could mean as much as covering the majority of the shape or as little as a mere centimeter into the shape.
The work ensues until there are a series of value steps from dark to medium to medium-light to light to lightest. Those transitions and graduations of value (and color) prevent the eye from being stopped by too much, or too sudden, contrast. Only at one location will there be a strident step from dark to lightest. And that location will be in a very strategic spot.
Gradually textures are created and, toward the end, there are a few stampings and spatters in unique places to help soften or assist a sudden value transition. In short, this process requires a lot of attention to edges and contrasts.
As the piece nears completion, there are always errors and problems with balance and misplaced contrasts. Sponging out areas using various masks (or not) helps to resolve many of these issues.
Overall, the goal is to make a painting which is completely unified from corner to corner, where there are relationships throughout the piece. That is where shapes are related in their character, value, color and or texture. There must be passages and movement through the piece and it must have excitement. That last word is the opposite of boredom. Every single square inch (or centimeter) must have something happening that is related to other parts of the painting, but in that relating must also be different. Texture stampings, for example, must be similar but different. VARIATION is a a key operative.
So!! There you have it. How long do paintings like this take? Weeks and, frequently, months!
Failure is my companion every step of the way. It is part of the process. The trick is to work the painting until it is finished: Never give up. Think think think think!!!!

The Ultimate Challenge

“Breakthrough”
Watercolor 22 x 30 inches
click on image to enlarge

After years of painting and trying to tackle all sorts of subjects, I came to realize that it wasn’t the subject that compelled viewers to be attracted to a painting and then to study it . . . .it wasn’t the subject at all. It was HOW it was painted.

Well, you say, that’s great news! What the heck do you mean?

In a few of the last many posts, I have mentioned the elements and principles of design. (elements: Line, Siz, Shape, Direction, Color, Value and Texture. Principles: Unity, Harmony, Dominance, Conflict, Repetition, Variation, Gradation and Balance.) It is in the paying closer attention to these principles, rather than the subject, in forming the marks (elements) that one arrives at a good painting (or not so good.)

We have all had the experience of painting places we know, or painting from excellently composed photos, or painting from life. In those instances, much of the work of composing the elements . . . .shape, texture, color, value, etc . . . .is done for the painter. More often than not, however, while we believe it to be the case that the photo or the model will lead us to a good painting, the opposite happens. Something along the way is forgotten, left out, or ignored . . . .and that comes from relying on the subject to lead the way. To be a great painter, one must reach inside to find that which makes terrific art. It is in our most creative state that we bring something better in our paintings to the world. But HOW do we DO that??

That is THE question. It is the stuff that isn’t obvious which brings a viewer to an excited state of examination. It is the contrasts, the harmonies and the surprises that we dream up to make that happen . . . . . .and it takes lots of practice, patience and many trials. . . .and the study of good design.

One must separate one’s consciousness from the world to force that reach into our authentic creative selves to produce visual answers to the question of HOW. The best way I know of is to paint non objective abstract paintings. In my opinion, that is the ultimate challenge.

That challenge, which is to create something not before seen, means there are no visual crutches or prompts. There is no script to follow. It is design in its purest form.

To do it well doesn’t come easily . . . .in fact, it is the most difficult thing a painter can attempt. It doesn’t occur by coincidence or by slinging paint and hoping for the best.

It happens through meticulous painting and cautious, examination and consideration of painting alternatives. This piece, entitled “Breakthrough,” is such a piece, which has taken months to complete. A few hours here and there. Rest. Look. Evaluate. Rework. Enhance. Rest. Think. Wait, Look, think . . . .and on and on and on. I began this piece in August. Here it is December . . . 5 months later. And I am still looking, thinking and wondering if it really is finished. Is it the best I can do? Do all the parts fit? Is it balanced? Is it interesting? Should it go public?

In the end, it is pieces, like this one, that teach us painters how and where to fill in the blanks when we are painting from life or photos. The challenge of creating something from absolutely nothing is the ultimate stretch. But it is also the place from which the NEW and DIFFERENT are born. It is the place which delivers the unavoidable authentic stuff that only you can make.

If you are interested in attempting this, you may want to consider a one week workshop in how to produce abstractions in work similar to this. It is well worth the investment, as the time spent will awaken even the most experienced artist to the importance of good design. As it turns out, I give such workshops. Interested? Drop me an email if it isn’t on my website.( I haven’t posted the dates yet)

Another Approach / Experiment

Recently, Stephen Quiller introduced me to another angle in watermedia painting. I do not know why it hadn’t occurred to me before now because I use a similar approach in oil paintings frequently. That is the idea of coloring the ground on which the painter paints. In oil painting, or acrylics, orange is often used as an undercolor, letting that color peek through in non deliberate places. It can make for a very unusual spark of energy in an otherwise mundane subject.

In this case, I painted a very thin coat of diluted acrylic paint onto the paper and allowed it to completely dry. Then drew my image onto that orange paper and set about painting the painting using sometimes opaque pigments and sometimes transparent pigments. The results are startling!

Here I have included a landscape with a very dramatic oblique dominance and a brilliant orange underpainting. That orange shows through and helps much of the foliage in the (lower parts of the painting) glow. The opaque gouache used in the sky and a few other spots causes the transparent passages to sing out.

Also, as a class demonstration, the still life (number 103, I believe) was used as a subject. A calmer orange was used in this painting and grays employed to cause the oranges and blue violets to appeal more to the viewer. This piece was literally slapped together to show how the underpainting could be used. Later, line was used through the piece to deliver more texture and interest.

The nice part of doing this is that it sets a color harmony through the entire painting establishing a strong unity. Even subconsciously, we see the orange shining through other colors, which sets a close relationship between all the colors used in the painting. It is a very effective tool to build dominance and unity.
Sort of fun and spectacular at the same time, eh?

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!

Playing “What If”

“Still Life-98”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

As you already know, I have been working on many different versions of this same still life.

Nothin’ new, you say?

I would beg your indulgence for just a moment. Playing “What If” is no boring pastime. It is the sure path to discovering something new, something unusual . . . . .and certainly the path to finding one’s personal voice in painting. Y’see, when the artist has nothing to lose and it doesn’t matter what others think about a piece, that artist is much more willing to take chances and try things that may not make sense or to take risks when more ‘serious’ approaches would cause risk avoidance.

As this painting was finished today, there was a missing element in the lower right foreground. It was here that the risk was staring back at me and mocking me to go ahead. The pattern of “dotted i’s” on the green vase needed another repetition and that lower corner needed some of that neutralized green to balance things. So, there it is. Could I have spoiled the painting? Yep. Was I taking a risk (can’t erase here with all that surrounding texture)? Yep. Does it make sense or seem ‘real?’ Nope. Did it work? Yep.

I think, frankly, that little silly touch is actually funny. The entire tone of the painting (mood) is sort of tongue in cheek. The entire painting is constructed of “what if” shapes and colors and values. Reality is suggested when it couldn’t possibly be that way. So, the doodling around with an old theme, just messin’ with ideas to see what would happen exposed some new approaches having to do with repeating patterns, gradations, shapes and color intensities. I learned more today!

Isn’t that what this painting business is all about? Growth and learning?