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?

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!

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!!!!!!!

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.

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!

After Hiatus . . .

“Slopes and Weather”
Oil on canvas panel
8 x 10 inches

I suppose vacation is something few artists ever get. Just look: I go on vacation and what do I do? Paint, of course!

Up in the mountains where everything is green, I was confronted with the choice to make everything green or should I exercise my artistic license and slather on some color Just for the heckuvit. I chose the latter and, frankly, I had fun doing it.

One thing I have learned over time . . . .that is if your values are right, you can do just about anything you want with color and come up with some interesting things. This little plein air oil painting was just such an effort. . . . .evening shadows, exaggerated slope angles, tree lines that became just shapes of color and a little angular house for contrast. The orange underpainting peeks through in places just for sparkle’s sake.

It all added up to a late afternoon of fun.

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!!!!

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?


Color Illusion
Those of us who are painters know that color is judged in the context of the colors surrounding them. That is to say that the way we, as humans, process color every color looks different when surrounded with other colors.
This illustration above is from an article in a Discover magazine blog which is a MUST READ
While you look at the above color spirals, you might be interested in knowing that the greenish and the blue spirals are exactly the same color!!!!!!
Yup! Blue green is the color . . .sort of a teal color, actually. Someone in that blog isolated the colors in photoshop and, sure enough, they are indeed precisely the same color. The color is influenced by the magenta and the orange stripes. Amazing, eh?

No Sooner . . .

“Edge of Quail Hollow”
Oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches
No sooner do I think of something, often, and someone else publishes a commentary about it.

As you know, I have been plein air painting like a crazy fool . . . .just racking up brush mileage. While I have been getting better by increments, I have also noticed that I haven’t been paying much attention to good value composition while in the field. Hmmm! That just isn’t like me! To not plan for that, is to plan for mundane, not so cool, unaccomplished paintings. Then, Robert Genn ( published this missive in his twice weekly letter about value patterns. ( I think this guys is psychic, sometimes! (or, I am)) ;-))

He made note that it is often after coming in from being sidetracked by trying to capture a scene that we realize, days later, that we didn’t give composition its due effort . . . .and then we set about repairing the image to come to life with a strong pattern of dark and light. Now, that does NOT mean contrasting tones. What he means is a strong proportion of massed dark shades as an organized shape (or grouping of shapes) next to a mass of lights. Mind you, this isn’t about objects or things. It is about groupings of assigned values in order to pull off a strong abstract design onto which the objects are superimposed.

Some painters refer to this as Notan, which is a Japanese word for the same idea . . .massing darks and lights in an organized pattern. This pattern is usually what makes a composition sing out . . . . is is NOT the things in the picture or the subject. We painters call this ‘design’ . . . .or, at least, value design.

So, I caught myself making some re-statements in my recent paintings. Those chunks of dark, or little select areas of clean light against a dark are what makes the viewer sit up and take notice. Thanks for reaffirming what matters, Mr. Genn!

P.S. Robert Genn has one of the finest, most informative art blogs on the internet. His biweekly letters are always welcome and get read, often with more investigation following. If you aren’t familiar or haven’t subscribed, you might want to give it a trial. It is very non commercial and worth your time. Here’s the link: