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!

Throw in the Towel? Never!

Before Modification . . .
“Bad Dawg”
Final Version
watercolor 21 x 21 inches

Years ago, as I was learning to paint and making a few hundred attempts per year, I found only a few of those to be “good” paintings.

Now, as I believe that I know a little more about the structure of a painting, I am very reluctant to accept that a painting is finished too early. Now, I seek a greater complexity than before. But it is waaaaaay more than just complexity. It has to do with balancing all the relationships.

Recently, I heard it said that a symphony is marshalling all the relationships of sounds so that the magnificence of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Wow! Is that ever true for the painter, too!

The act of creating balance and unity among the relationships is the crux of painting fine work. There is intense mental strife in that effort for me. In other words, it is a continuous battle to adjust and modify until everything fits. And so many, many times in the progress of a piece I mutter “just give it up!”

I am finding, as I grow artistically, that it isn’t always one’s ability to paint as it is the willingness to risk failure over and over until a painting is finished. Every alternative must be tested, sometimes tried, to determine if the painter has gone too far or not far enough. At some point, making new marks threatens to spoil weeks of work. And it sometimes does.

When it does, should I quit and begin again? That is one possibility. Or, should I attempt removal of the mark, or modification of the rest of the painting?

I say never quit! Take the piece all the way to near ruin before giving in. Lifting paint out of a watercolor is not easy, but it is possible. Overwork? Of course! There is a patina which develops which can sometimes be most attractive and displays a bit of history of what the artist did to complete a piece if it is overworked.

This piece, “Bad Dawg,” is one such piece that suffered through several different endings before I finally stated, ‘that is enough.’ Overworked? Perhaps. Muddy? Some would say “yes.” Sophisticated? Maybe. In the end, taste prevails. Your taste? What does it say?

In the process of becoming more accomplished, learning to accept failure as a companion is absolutely necessary. The biggest part of that, I believe, is NEVER giving up.

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!!!!

Today’s Demo

“Rocks and Carpets”
Watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
This was the demo today. It is a fairly complex painting with challenges in linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, compostion, value structure, color and texture.
I attempted to show and discuss the thinking process in developing a decent watercolor painting, the preparation and planning to establish a strong composition to a ‘standing room only’ crowd of around 90 to 100 painters. it was exciting and fun!
As most of my readers know from reading this blog, and seeing the paintings posted here, I try very hard to go out to where other watercolorists visit rarely, if ever. This piece was more of a traditional watercolor painted so the audience would relate with the scene, as well as the structure of the piece. I attempted to show how the elements and principles apply in realism, as well as abstract painting.
If you were there, I hope you enjoyed it . . .and I hope you will comment here. All in all it was a fun afternoon, but I have to admit that it took several hours for me to ‘come down.’ I get nervous about these sort of things, even though I paint a lot.
This demo kicked off my ten week course beginning tomorrow, “Watercolor Beyond the Obvious.” More about it later. Thanks to those who came today. You were a terrific audience!

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.

The Ultimate Challenge

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)

The Chase

“Sentinel Haze”
watercolor, 18 x 24 inches

There is a big message here if you are a painter. Read all the way to the bottom.

As an occasional art instructor it is my job to enlighten about the elements and principles of design. Enlightenment is one thing but applying that to which one has been exposed is quite another.

There are 15 words to wrestle with. The elements have 7, the principles 8. The elements: line, size, shape, direction, color, value and texture. The principles: Unity, Harmony, Dominance, Conflict, Repetition, Variation, Gradation and Balance. (Comment: others may argue the selection of words to be included or traded out, but we are all really focusing on the same things.)

Often, the student complains (as do I !) “How do you think of all these things when you are painting?” My truthful answer is really something to the effect of ‘that is what divides the novices and masters.’ And . . .as we all know, there are very few masters out there. . . . . . .but it sure is a wonderful chase to try to touch mastery every once in a while!!

Sometimes, execution fails miserably. The technique completely collapses in favor of some other dominating thoughts while in the act of mushing paint around. Other times, the technique is extraordinary, but the design has a major, uncorrectable flaw . . .and all who see the painting know it. They may not be artists or know anything of painting, but they can sense a design mistake in the pit of their gut.

The challenge to get content, technique and design all working together is mostly overwhelming. When they all come together, the high that an artist experiences is, I suppose, the entire reason for the chase. It is simply temporary nirvana.

On the last day of my trip to Yosemite 6 weeks ago, I stood in awe of the view of Sentinel Rock in a slight haze. I decided to exaggerate that visual effect . . .or at least TRY to . . . .and to experiment once again . . . . .let multi colored washes drain down a vertical page, then define the positive shape (the rock) by painting the negative shape (the sky) in an opaque (using gouache) colorless wash. The contrast of opaque and transparent would be opposite what one might imagine . . . . .that is the transparent atmospheric nature of watercolor would probably best be used in the sky (the illusion of air), while the rock would be thought of as a solid, dense mass (opaque.) I deliberately reversed that idea to see what would happen.

While completely absorbed in all of this stuff, mentally, while painting, I forgot my design principles. Yup! I became sidetracked with the experiment and paid no attention to the ridiculous design error that I had made and was constructing right in front of my eyes. I happily just kept painting. It wasn’t until completion that I realized that I had divided the space evenly (dammit!!!) and created two separate paintings on one piece of paper (double dammit!)

Oh well! It was only a piece of paper to begin with . . . .and now it is still only a piece of paper. However, I am saving this painting because it revealed an extremely successful experimental result which I will employ in another painting later. Lesson learned (again!!)

There is one last comment for the painters out there who read this blog . . . . . . it is the failures and the mistakes that give us painters the best lessons. While we relish and seek the successes, our best friend in the chase is those mistakes that spank us into those, “OOoohh! Now I get it”moments. I have learned to court failure in the chase. In painting, failure really is a friend and not something to fear. No one ever has been hurt or ever died from making a painting mistake. Through failing, we learn and grow!

Disdain for the Ordinary

“Sentinel Autumn”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
I suppose it is possible to tell much about a person by the way he paints and the paths he or she chooses. In fact, in my own case, it seems my disdain for ordinary work is written all over me and my work (at least, I hope my work shows that!)
There are many paintings out there of the same tired subjects. Half Dome in Yosemite is, perhaps, an icon, but it is also in soooo many paintings that I try to avoid it. That isn’t to say that it is a bad thing to paint. Again, it is HOW it is painted . . .NOT WHAT was painted.
Looking back at my last post, speaking about having the paint speak up as paint and not something else, that really is another comment about avoiding the obvious.
Sentinel Rock in Yosemite drew my attention for most of the week there . . .and I painted it multiple times. This time, I worked at letting the granulation of the pigment speak up. (click on the image to see it). The tall rock was shaped somewhat like this, but that is where the reality gave way to the paint and let the paint make its statements.
There are one or two more pieces to post from that trip. They’ll appear soon.

Overcoming Big Design Errors

“Blowhard II”

watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
It never fails . . .or, so it seems. When I think I know what I am going to do . . .and begin without a substantial plan . . . . .I end up digging myself out of substantial design problems.

D’ya suppose there is a relationship there?

Okay, okay! The tree part is where I put all the plan time, but the rest of it got the best of me for a good while. First off, after the painting was blocked in and I had established the darks of the tree mass, it occurred to me I would be making two, not one, but two different paintings on the same piece of paper. I had divided the paper right across the midline of the page. Ouch!! As well, I had put a number of small shapes together slightly left of center, which crossed over the dividing line.

Oh NO!!! oh yes! Not only did I need to find a way out of the space division, but also I had created a large to small contrast well away from the center of interest (upper right) and set up a competition for attention. Gads!!

That entire ‘shelf’ on which the trees stood had to be broken in some way and I had to figure a way to have that big dark value bleed down well beyond the ‘shelf’ line so I would have a large, prominent dark holding a large chunk (more than half) of the paper real estate. I had to sponge off a bunch of pigment to obliterate the small shapes then use that space to create an addition to the large dark (the trees). So I did.

All of that has taken almost five days to bring to conclusion. There is a lesson here: Plan First. And not just in the mind. Make drawings and studies first. It seems like the long way, but it really is the shorter way.

Square Deal

“Elkkhorn Backwater”
oil on stretched canvas, 12 x 12 inches
Having never painted on a square format before now, I have always shied from it because there was no dominant direction in the format. That is, neither dominantly horizontal nor vertical. Considering the golden mean, there is no way to express it in the square, at least, as far as I am aware. So, it is very important, in my opinion, to place dynamic, unsymmetrical, ‘moving’ shapes inside the square to excite the viewer. Otherwise symmetry leads to boredom.
The long, leading linear light valued shape on the water’s edge leads the eye deep into the square in an oblique direction, thus giving the internals of the square some tension and movement. The end of that shape, or line, the viewer is immediately attracted to the orange shapes lying out in the distance. Much is going on in this seemingly quiet, static square.
On the way to another painting site a few weeks ago, we stopped at this location to photograph the beutiful contrasts of the hills, the swarming green succulent, the orange fungus ( I think it is a fungus), and the water / reflections. Having just finished painting for the day, we only had time to photograph and go.
Working from my computer monitor in my studio, I was able to take a few days developing this painting . . . .glazing, reshaping, refining, recoloring . . .what ever was needed to refine this to the art piece that it is. I enjoyed it and like the result!
Meanwhile, I am painting the interior of our home and removing old “popcorn” ceilings. the labor is abusive, that is for sure. What’s more, the abuse doubles because I am away from my beloved easel. Some deal!!