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?

Thinking Compositionally

“The Big Stick”
watercolor 22 x 22 inches

Compositional Sketches

There are plenty of those who are saying under their breath, “I don’t like these pictures of Linemen.” In other words, they might be thinking that these ‘pictures’ aren’t cute enough or pretty enough to decorate their house. Many painters today subconsciously appraise paintings from that point of view. Those artists are confined to thinking purely about the subject of the painting and how precious it might be in a decorative environment, instead of assessing the painting on the basis of its artistic merit.

That said, I have been wrestling with this subject for a few months and today I broke through to a new level of thinking. I finally was able to separate my compulsive little pea brain from trying to replicate the subject and moved into considering the abstract composition FIRST. What a difference it makes!

Seriously, I do know better. In fact, I teach this in my classes. But it isn’t always easy to make the shift. I might be the teacher, but I am vulnerable to habit just like the next person.

Let me illustrate what I am writing about . . . .refer to the sketches you see above . . . . . . .there is, essentially, two values in each of these sketches. It wasn’t until I reached the bottom sketch that I realized that I should consider the dark values as ONE SHAPE and how it sits in the rectangle or the square! Notice the little teeny sketch to the right of the bottom sketch. Doesn’t that abstract shape appeal to your sense of design? It certainly does mine! It was there that I realized (once again my mind says, Oh! I remember!!) that it isn’t the details but the arrangement of the value shapes and the ratio of their sizes that appeals to our deep abstract aesthetic senses.

Knowing that, I grabbed an old painting, flipped it to the backside, and began drawing in the big dark shape. Once drawn, I could see where some modifications were necessary . . . namely to move from a rectangle to a square format . . .there was an awkward space on the left. Then, the decision to put the horizontals at a slight oblique also added a nice tension to the composition. Also, I recognized that the crossbar on the background pole was not a good angle, so revised that, too, in order to drive the eye to the white helmets.

Once drawn, I pulled the three inch brush from its holster and began sloppily painting intp the dark shape and made sure to slop some color variation into the shape but keep the values the same (that was yesterday). The lights and the darks were set . . . .I left it to dry until today . . . .(and worried a bit about the light shapes of the light on the back of the one figure and the light helmets. I was concerned that those light shapes were too isolated.) It needed more of an abstraction of light passing through the composition.

In short, I lifted here and there to add more of a passage of light through the piece, enhanced a few darks here and there, pushed a few warm cool contrasts and carefully kept myself from ever considering details. . . . .or logic. For example, I decided not to fill in the cross bar brace and not to put an underside dark on the crossbar to the left of the pole . . . .why? Because those details would disturb the composition. Yes, those details would make sense but would affect the negative shapes.

I know this is a long explanation, but I believe this to be the place where I break through in the series to much stronger work. Thanks for being patient.

Under My Skin . . .

“The Power of Line”
Watercolor 18 x 24 inches

Thinking of Sinatra’s song by the same title (and Michael Buble’) “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” . . . .this subject has finally reached the point of bothering me in my sleep. The subject is under my skin.

Drawing figures who are at work is no easy task. Composing them inside a rectangle so there is energy and content spilling out of that rectangle is the part that is nagging at my every constant thought. Mind you, I have plenty on my plate, being the prez of NWS and also working part time in high tech AND teaching. It seems I am doing a bit of each of these things daily . . . . (spinning plates!) . . . . .and these linemen and composing something of them is bugging me!
It has reached the point where if I have a pencil or pen in hand (or nearby) I’ll be doodling them on anything! The business papers have them. Phone lists have them. Recipes have them. The phone book has them. Meeting agendas have them . . . .everything except my checks . . .and maybe these guys will appear there soon.
As you might see, I reversed a drawing of a painting done back in December, added the element of the near vertical pole in the background in order to involve the other edges of the rectangle. Between the poles and cross arm lives an interesting negative space into which my ‘boys’ are placed. Their location of being scrunched into a corner with lots of space behind and above them provides the feeling of height. As you can see, this piece is rather loose, which I like . . . . but that is because I am still experimenting with different ways to say what needs to be said (what ever that is right now) and am painting on the backs of old unsuccessful paintings.
Why do that, you ask? I will, no doubt, gobble up 20 to 30 sheets of paper before I will begin to settle into a rhythm of confidence with the subject. It is coming along, but I have more work to do. There will come a point where I will be certain of what I want to say and how to say it . . . . what surface, what brushes, what textures, what edges and angles, what shapes and what color strategies. For now, while they are bothering my consciousness, I am taking heed that there is something more to do and to say. So . . . I am trying and waiting for those big sudden breakthroughs to appear.
The trick is to keep at it and don’t give up and take advantage of the fact that they snoop around in my dreams.

So You Think . . . . .



Sketches and trial composition and color studies of Linemen at work

pencil and watercolor

So you think it’s all talent?? I say Baloney !

It seems every time people comment on the work of artist, including my own, these statements are overheard:

“You are soooo talented.”

“I could never do that.”

“I tried it once and didn’t do well, so I never did it again.”

I say “Baloney!” because over the years I have spent painting . . .and counting all the failures which no one ever sees . . . . .it has been hard, focused and devoted W O R K ! That is not to say that the efforts have been unhappy, or that there has been no frustration or disappointments. Quite the contrary! Underneath all of the paintings before now has been study. Diligent, concentrated investigation and attempt after attempt to resolve unsatisfactory results has been the daily rigor.

Here is an example of what sort of effort goes into developing a painting from an idea.

First, there are the sketches to determine how the artist wants to compose or present the subject. Often, the effort stops there. Once in a while, though, an idea persists and further development is called for.

Rather than paint the mundane, ordinary stuff we see daily, why not elevate it to a different stature. In this example, I spent a full week exploring different color schemes while also considering different compositional ideas. Oh, sure I had reference photos from which to select ideas and approaches, but after several drawings on tracing paper, modifications had to be made to make clear what was being said visually.

In the end, I did develop a painting from these studies, which I will show in the next post. The point here is not the finished product, but the effort over fully two weeks of daily work to bring that painting to life.

Talent? Baloney!! It is trial and error and error and error and trial and more trials and more errors. It is having the stubbornness to not be swayed by the failure to deliver the goods on the first try, or the second or even the third, but to attempt again and again making refinements along the way.

Mastery is not a trait someone is born with or is given as a gift. Every good artist I know puts in way more time than many folks do at a job. They dream about it at night. They read and study about it. They drill themselves in exercises and studies. They are often compulsive about it. They are willing to risk failure daily in order to have the opportunity to make a single success at painting.

So, if you want to really compliment an artist (musician, dancer, actor, painter, sculptor etc.) let them know you appreciate their insatiable efforts to get better and better. It really is quite a cool way to live . . . . .it is most fulfilling!!

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.

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.

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.

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!!

Itching To Get Out Again

“Live Oak Farm”
Oil on linen panel, 8 x 10 inches
Friday, I went out to paint . . .on a cold, foggy day. I discovered this old little farm, just like a small island, right in the midst of our town. It seems the same family has owned the land for over 100 years and the ground is still being worked. So, I painted it. As I was doing so the fog bank rolled back and the sun came out briefly.

After coming home and putting the painting in a trial frame for a few days, it gave the paint a chance to dry and me a chance to look it over with new eyes. So, yesterday, I spent a few nice hours making adjustments and revising a few things. I so enjoyed myself that I am going out again today. I think Walnut Avenue will be a good place for the day.