In My Face . . .

“Confetti and Spears”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

After posting a non objective piece last week, I immediately ran to the easel to do another. Sketches were already done and I was psyched to hit a home run! I have worked on this piece daily for over a week, putting in three to four hours per day.

It wasn’t until I photographed the piece and brought it up on the computer screen that I saw some glaring errors . . . .and I don’t mean smudges or brush sloppiness. I mean design errors that shocked me. This piece has been in my face for over a week and I never saw the errors until now.
We artists can become so driven and focused on something that we completely miss that which is right in front of us . . . at least I sure do!
I am a bit of a fanatic about composition and design, yet make the same mistakes over and over again. For example, the large light shapes which float through the composition in this painting are, I suddenly realized, centered in the page. That is, the intervals or distances between the bottom of the shapes and the bottom edge of the page are the same intervals as the distances from the tops of the shapes to the top edge of the page. Darn!! Why didn’t I see that?
Then, when laying in the spears and lines I was careful not to make any parallel to each other . . . . . . . . .Or, was I cautious enough? Apparently NOT!! Yikes! How could I have missed that?
I must admit that I spent much time and effort trying to avoid color errors and wasn’t looking carefully at spatial relationships in the piece. I had set a challenge to work up a painting in a red analogous color scheme. I love the colors and textures and much of the movement through the piece. That said and noting the errors made (there are ALWAYS mistakes!) this is a passable painting.
I have a friend who is a Dolphin Fellow in AWS (an extremely high honor which recognizes artistic excellence) who says we have to do 10 or 20 in order to get “a good one.” He does . . .and so to I.
So, like they used to say in the barber shop: “NEXT!”

Toying with Line and Color

“Line Splice”
watercolor trial 22 x 30 inches

Few a few days I have been alternately prepping for a workshop and painting . . .among other things. This is a hurried painting on the back of a ruined painting . . .in other words, a trial of a few ideas.

The first idea was to set a mood of an approaching storm and a shadow of danger. That meant I had to use color in a way that was moody and foreboding to a degree: few, if any, pure dazzling colors. I chose to paint in a strategy of Shades, Tones and Tints. In this approach, tones dominate the image while I used shades for shadow areas and the darks. The Tints were reserved for the lineman’s shirt . . . .the edges of it which were in the light.
As well, the use of LINE as an element in the painting was another item I had to fool with to get the feel of which technique to use to express the cables and phone lines in the piece. As it turns out, all but one are freehand. I tried taping the lines off . . . .it was too ridgid. I tried painting with a soft brush and it became too fussy. Then I happened upon a very stiff bristle brush, flat, used on edge . . . .that did the trick.
The gray sky area (the negative space) is much too sloppy for what I needed to accomplish, but now I know I must mix a large amount of wash to attain the uniform feel I am after. I will use a tub of premixed wash on my next attempt and use that as a mother color to establish color variation in the negative space.
The line work in the piece definitely gives a feeling of empty space which emphasizes the shadow of danger. The tree trunk and utility pole on the right of the piece hold the eye inward and make for a strong tie to the left margin via the wires and cables.
I like this one. When I return from my workshop, I will explore making a serious painting of it.

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!

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!

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?

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!

“Royal Arches”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

Depending on who you talk to, SIZE is an element of design. Size actually means “scale” or “Proportion” or “Measure.” That is to say in order for the eye to assess how large something is, there must be comparative objects or sizes to measure against.

We all ‘know’ how big a human being is (roughly) or the size of most trees. When we see a very tiny pine tree next to a large cliff face, we get a sense of the proportion of the cliff side. It is through clues like this that we artists are somewhat able to communicate that sense of enormity.

In this painting (on site in Yosemite) the scene is in the meadow near the Royal Arches. Those arches appear in the cliff side of the rock which stands straight out of the meadow and snuggles close to the very recognizable Half Dome. One simply cannot imagine the size of that cliff side without comparative objects nearby.

So, here is the attempt. In the early morning, the sun rises behind Half Dome and projects its light onto the face of the arches. It is an amazing . . . .and nearly overwhelming sight! To paint it . . . .that is another story entirely. It sure made me feel like a teensy little ant!!

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.