Experimentation and Inspiration

“Oaks on a Wall”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches
Often, in execution of the lessons I give in classes and workshops, I am distracted from a deep inspiration to create a specific painting. Other kinds of distractions come up, too, but all of them frequently take me off that inspired track. That is one good reason for taking a week away from everyone and everything to just concentrate on painting. Such was the case a few weeks ago in Yosemite.

Returning to class from Yosemite, I had to give a mindless demo of different ways to create textures or to give a sense of surface in a painting. I say mindless because it was simply a blank piece of paper and a bunch of different examples of stamping, lifting, spraying, splattering, smudging, dripping etc . . . .all with no image or intention of making a painting.

Meanwhile, in the back of my mind was a vision I had seen through the eyes of a zoom lens . . . .the face of one of the sheer granite walls towering hundreds of meters above my place on the valley floor. Full grown trees grew out of cracks on the stone! Yet those trees and the abstract patterns in the rock had me buzzing inside.

I took the demo sheet home and began experimenting with more textures and colors and ‘stuff’ just to see what I could come up with that **might** suggest those walls and their abstractions on that same sheet . . .just slobbering layer over layer.

Often, it is the coming together of sheer experimentations and the visions from inspired ideas that create works which arrest a viewer and hold their interest . . . .much more that a tired scene of something everyone knows.

Clearly, to be different, one must do different things at the easel. The painter must allow the paint to act like paint rather than conform to some notion about looking like something else. Experiments can show us painters new ways to consider our beautiful mediums. In fact, I believe most of our work as artists must be connected to experimenting.

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!

Two Versions

“Downstream Autumn”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches
“Bottom of the Dome”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
There is a park in California called Yosemite National Park. If you have been there, you KNOW that it touches the soul. If you have never been, it must be put on your ‘bucket list’ to go before the end of your life. If you go, you will, no doubt return. One cannot help but be struck with awe by witnessing the immensity of the granite walls.

I just finished spending a week there . . . .painting. The images I have posted during October were of that place. My heart and mind were already making paintings long before I went there. As a result, I had ideas for experiments and trials of different painting approaches when I arrived.

One was to use bright red orange line through a painting to define flat shapes. Another, of course, was to paint en plein air the beautiful Autumn foliage.

At the river bottom, under the shadow of the massive half dome, I painted some reality on my first day . . .and dreamt of the orange line idea for a few nights before springing from bed early one morning to dash out the idea. I rather like the imapact of the pure hues and tints against the near black ridge in the abstracted version. Impactful. But the other version offers a significantly different mood. . . . . A restfulness, I suppose.

It matters not. What matters is the idea was carried out. In later posts I will show similar ideas tried . . . .which offerred interesting discoveries.

It was a wonderful, magical trip with lots of revelations to ponder and try.

Experimenting with the Elements

Line Experiment
watercolor 14 x 21 inches

It has been a while since posting last. To get back into the painting mode I will sometimes take on a familiar subject and ‘let her rip’ by applying the paint in ways that are completely different than my normal painting ‘style.’ In this painting I used wet paper and an oil painting filbert brush to scrub in the paint. This yields wild and brilliant colors but also opened the door to using line in an otherwise different way. In the end, all of the elements (7 of them) are present, but some are emphasized in such a way as to attract attention.

This painting of half dome in Yosemite was more of an experiment than a painting. It may never see a frame or a mat, but it certainly allowed me to ‘get off the leash to run’ and get the crazy urges out of my system. It served another purpose: discovery. While fooling around in a free fashion, I found a few little ideas (like red shadows) and using dense, opaque colored line (integrating gouache into the watercolor pigment) atop the trees. This shifted the focus from the dome to the trees and the white shape behind them. These discoveries of how to exploit the different elements of design can often lead to new approaches in more serious paintings.

Open Studio is finished for 2009. Now I am putting everything away for next year and attempting to get back to living a normal life. Thanks to all who came and a special thanks to all my enthusiastic patrons.

The Power of Line

“Sax and Line”
Watercolor, 11 x 15
“Still Doodle 100”
watercolor, 15 x 22

Line has been used for centuries to create various kinds of art. In drawing, of course, much of that discipline is controlled by line. In painting, also, line plays a vital part in causing the mind to ‘see’ the artist’s intention. And, line can be both expressed directly, or it is often implied by ‘points’ or objects, where the mind imagines the connections and, therefore, can ‘see’ the ‘lines.’

As an element of design, line is often the first element put into play by the artist as he or she sketches or outlines objects and placement thereof onto canvas or paper. It isn’t until later that shading (values), texture and color are added to express some visual feeling of form and space. Line itself can be the dominant element in a painting. If used in certain ways, it can suggest, without actually delineating, shape or form through simple gestural movement in the picture space.

It is often challenging, enlightening and entertaining to select a single element from the list of seven elements and bring it to prominence in a painting. What is more, such choices can often set up ideas for new paintings.

I have shown some line ideas here in these two doodles (that’s what I am coming to call experiments that have no purpose of ever becoming a finished or a “work of art.” Notice how shape is merely suggested with line. Also, you may find some of the lines worthy of noting simply for their own ‘beauty’ or character.

Line is used in the still life doodle to show contour, surface, texture, direction and even shadow. . . . . .all of those things without actually saying any those things expressly. The other piece, line is used as a gestural suggestion without defining shape. The mind has to fill in the blanks.
Enjoy thinking about it.

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?

Series Article

Still life 93
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches
You have, no doubt, heard about the idea of ‘working in series.’

There are tons of reasons for it, one of which is to improve on a theme. The least obvious is that through the confinement of doing some single thing over and over again is that the artist’s creative mind is awakened and begins to work overtime. I say that it is liberation through confinement.

In fact, if you’d like to know more about the process of series work and what it can do for you and your art . . . . .or if you are a lay person and want to truly understand what the mystery is inside of an artist’s work process . . . . .pick up a copy of the October issue of “WATERCOLOR ARTIST” magazine.
In that magazine is an article entitled, “Play it Again” authored by yours truly. I hope you find it interesting.
Oh, the painting above is another in the long series of still life experiments. This one was done yesterday. I do these when I yearn to paint but have no specific idea of **what** to paint. This helps me loosen up for paintings to come, exercises my creative muscles, opens thinking channels, allows me to experiment without danger of failure and on and on and on. Thought you might like to see how I ‘doodle’ with my paints.

See If You Can Explain This . . .

“Meadow Stripes”
oil on stretched canvas, 16 x 20 inches
Warms advance and cools recede, right?

I have been painting the wildflowers in this meadow over the last few weeks. In meddling with one of the last paintings to make repairs, I decided to take license with color. That is to change several things to see what would happen (the cool thing about oil painting is that you can cover up anything! So you can experiment till your heart’s content and not waste a single piece of canvas . . .you can always go back over it!)

In this painting, the dark tree line in the rear of the picture space is cool red. While the hills in the back are pale, warm blue. The sky is a warm, pale yellow. The big tree on the right is green and the foreground ranges from blue violet to yellow grays to dull greens. My color logic says “no, this won’t work” . . .but it does.

If I think in literal terms, red is warmer than blue. That part is okay. But why does the red recede like it does in the tree line? The two green trees in this piece scream with warm, intense greens in the light, but out of the light they are icy blue in places.

Maybe the key to this piece is the warm, orange underpainting, which leaks through the colors in the foreground giving it an overall warm, advancing presence. Do ya think?

Thinking about the color wheel, I suppose that the yellow greens live higher, more toward warm than does the alizarin crimson based tree line. Whadda mind trick this painting is. Maybe you can explain it to me. ( I am serious!)

P.S. I’ll be signing off for a few weeks. I am going on a ‘walkabout.’ That is to say I’ll be travelling for a few weeks. This time no paints will accompany me (ouch!) Painting has always been my mistress, but this time I am taking the real mistress with me. She gets all my attention on this junket. If you knew her, you’d wonder who’d be able to pay attention to anything else! I’ll prolly be chewing my nails and twitching from the absence of paint and making art when I get back, but we are going where it’s a bit cold. So, there’ll be some snuggling happening, I am sure of it! 😉 (Maybe that’ll help!)

Meanwhile, be sure to tell me what you think about this color curiosity in the comments section.

Brush Mileage

“Reflected Umbers”
oil on linen panel 8 x 10 inches

A few years back I ran across a group of oil painters who were doing a painting daily. There were a few who were pretty good at it, but most were wrestling with the different painting skills. I have since looked up a few of those same painters and am astonished by their accomplished work. No one injected them with some masterpiece serum or told them “the secret.” (There isn’t a secret, save for one concept.) No one passed along some ancient potion to drink or introduced them to the teacher who could miraculously transform them into master painters. Nor did they arrive at mastery suddenly.

They already knew the secret to achieving mastery . . . .and they exploited it. For us painters, we call it brush mileage. That is to say that the more one paints, the better one becomes. Reaching mastery simply comes from a ton of practice. (Whadda concept !!!)

This painting looked like mush when I finally threw in the towel. Some careful thought, a wise crit from a friend and 15 minutes of patient rework brought what I wanted to say out of it. Those simple minutes seemed almost absurd. It came so easy. It sure wouldn’t have been easy 100 paintings ago! Something came about in the last 100 paintings.

It was the brush mileage that was adding up to bring a confidence with the brush that I didn’t have without all that practice. That’s what the daily painters knew. They knew when they started that a painting per day would deliver extraordinary skills. Amen !!!

The Dance

“Red Rover”
Oil on canvas panel, 12 x 16 inches
As stated in a recent post, this month is about focusing on plein air painting.

I can get very excited about this stuff, especially when the weather is offering sunshine and lots of subjects to paint. I must confess that I have taken on a near madness in this pursuit . . . .making two paintings a day! Yes. I am falling out of bed at sunrise, pulling on some clothes and leaving the house to paint. In five days, ten paintings have appeared. So far this month, 20 paintings have happened. And I have more waiting to be done. (Yes, there is other stuff getting accomplished, too, for those who are wondering about that. 😉 )

I am not sure of what to do with all this energy, except that I have an ethic about getting better and better at something. That ethic is to practice . . . .a lot !! If being taught by an expert, the expert will openly say something to the effect of “get the first 500 paintings out of the way, quickly,” . . . . . . which is really about producing quantity versus concern for quality. In that production of quantity, all sorts of things develop . . .not the least of which is to build a firm familiarity with how the medium responds. Moreover, a relaxation by the artist takes over at some point. That is an attitude of accepting what is happening on the canvas rather than trying to steer it. It is there, in that attitude that one’s style emerges. It is there, in that attitude that quality appears as a result of an internal knowing of what that medium will do when left undisturbed. (Am I saying this correctly?) . . . .and so leaving that brush stroke to say what it will.

In a fascinating book I am reading, “The Outliers,” by Malcom Gladwell, he speaks of mastery of anything coming as a result of being involved with it for ten thousand hours. Yes, it sounds like a lot of time. When I thought about it, and recounted what amount of time has passed while I had a watercolor brush in hand over the years (or was studying it) . . . .those hours long since passed. Who was counting?? Not me! I just wanted to paint!! Just like today. I just want to paint. I have to paint. That is to say, there is not a choice. I must!

Maybe mastery will come at some point. Maybe it won’t. I don’t care if it does or does not. In the chase, I get to paint !! And that, Dear Reader, is what makes this guy’s clock tick. It is the music to which I dance . . . . .and dance . . .and dance . . .and dance! What a joy!

And this painting above was simply the joy to undertake the challenge. Life is sooo good!