Figures into Shapes

Sketchbook studies
I have returned from my holiday hiatus.

The last post was about a scene in Bordeaux, France of a very famous fountain / walking area.

I have decided to go forward with this painting . . .and in a bigger way . . .I will be using it as a demonstration, later. But first, I needed to build a degree of comfort with the story being told by the postures of the people there.

In order to have a sense of instant recognition of what is transpiring there, it is most important to do so with shape rather than details. So, I believe my notion of gesture to be correct. Shape must tell the whole story. It isn’t necessary that the shape be accurate to what each person looks like. Quite the contrary: We are dealing with extreme value contrast in the forthcoming painting. The silhouettes aren’t even true to the actual color or value changes that appeared in the actual place. Instead, it is the entire shape . . .even complex, combined shapes which must speak about a minute story. The shapes cannot be static. They must appear to be in a moving state, though slowly moving . . .and they must provide a rhythm of sorts. That rhythm must exist in size changes, intervals between the shapes, attitudes of the shapes and their individual directions . . . vertical or oblique. I seek a feeling of promenade or strolling with children playing, people enjoying a connection in an odd but relaxed atmosphere.

This will be a challenge. Such as it is, I must practice and practice and practice more with the figures as a singular shape with complete concern for how they relate to each other rather than the details. Here’s the first of the practices. A good 2 to 3 hours work in the sketch book . . . .so I will be able to pick and choose from the poses in the paintings that will be done from this subject.. . . and to be completely acquainted with the gestures that make up the whole.

Practicing the Gesture

“Bordeaux Promenade”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches (practice only)
While in Bordeaux this last summer, I was fascinated with scenes like this. There is a football field sized slab of concrete like this near the town center. Inside the slab are valves and jets that spew steam and water and fountain-like spouts all day long. Adults and children alike are drawn to this place as its visual magic changes every ten minutes. Reflections and different configurations of water in its vapor or liquid states make for endless entertainment. In the summer, when it is warm, people gather there to cool off and simply stroll and / or play. I have 50 photos of the activity there and wish I had taken more.

This image is practice piece for one on which I wish to embark soon. It is all too tempting paint the ‘details’ . . .but they are not what make this painting an interesting possibility. It is the glare, distortions and reflections. So, given that, the challenge is to make it interesting by only using the gesture of the brush rather than belaboring details. This practice experiment is to flex my gestural muscles a bit before tackling a big painting of the subject. Prior to putting the figure shapes into this painting, I spent some time practicing making the gestures which suggested people and reflections with a one inch flat brush. Lots of twisting the brush, using edges and corners etc to bring about the feel I was after. The practice helped a lot . . .and shows me where I need to put my best efforts in the upcoming painting. This is a challenge that will keep me occupied for a few weeks. . . . .and will build more skills.

Does that skill building aspect of being an artist ever end? I hope not!

Today’s Efforts

No title, yet
The goal today was to begin to equalize values across the painting . . .as stated in yesterday’s post. Another 15 thin glazes were added and some corrections in a few places. As the glazes progessed, there is a noticable intensity difference in the large orangish shape . . . particularly near where the white shape is crossed by one line. There are some exposure difficulties keeping the actual image from revealing itself . . . such as the upper left corner appearing much darker than it really is.
Line was a missing element that began to be introduced and, in so doing, divided space for more interest. I am still not sure of where this is going or how it will turn out, though I have acquired some general intetions about it at this point.
This is an entirely different exercise for me since there was absolutely NO planning at all. The entire abstraction is derived from making random marks. More work will happen tomorrow . . . . . . .and I will attempt to fix the exposure difficulties. Am working with a different photo set up and need to adjust the lighting.
More tomorrow.

Answering The Creative Urge

“Fragments of an Idea”
watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
I enjoy doodling. That is sitting and mindlessly pushing a pencil to create little visual thoughts. I think many people doodle unconsciously . . .like when they are in conversation on the phone. There just doesn’t *seem* to be any artistic direction happening there. Or, does there?

My opinion is that doodles are often ideas trying to be expressed. It might be the subconscious trying to tell the conscious mind that there is something afoot . . . an idea is brewing. So, why don’t more artists consider those ideas as something to develop on canvas or paper?

Returning from a trip last weekend, I sat in front of the TV and discovered an urgent need to have a pencil and paper in my hands. Grabbing a scratch pad and pen, I started doodling. Soon, I was playing with flat shapes . . . .overlapping them, shading them, stacking them . . . .just fiddling with no intent other than to see what showed up.

The next thing I knew was one was speaking to me with “paint me!” written all over it. So I began it. For three days I have worked on this piece to develop it at the easel. With nothing to look at other than the doodle, the mental gymnastics ensued. One finds quickly what design concerns are when confronted with working out a non objective painting . . .and why it is soooo important to understand the ins and outs of sound design.

The very issues that tease us artists in making ANY painting of ANY subject successful come quickly to confront the artist in non objective work. Whether a subject is realistic or not, how it fits into the rectangle, how all the parts relate or conflict and how the eye works through the piece are only parts of the whole puzzle in any painting. Non objective work gives the artist no hints. It all has to come from the thoughts and intuition of the artist. It is mental exercise of very high order. Whether this one fails or succeeds, what counts is the strengthening of creative muscles through the exercise and answering the creative urge.

No monkey or kindergartener could do this, regardless of what some uninformed lay people might think or say.

Another Experiment . . .

Water based oil experiment
on gessoed masonite . . 10″ x 10″
Just before departing for Europe in a week, I am toying with the idea of carrying water mixable oil paints with me. I had never used or tried those that I purchased for the same reason last year . . . and left in a drawer. I obtained a sample of the fast drying medium made by WN “Artisan” water mixable oils and went to work.
In less than 40 minutes I laid down a grisaille in ultramarine blue and white, then overpainted with color, using just a warm and cool of each primary (and white). Also, I tried two new brushes . . .mongoose bristle . . .which is sort of an inbetween bristle between sable and hog bristle. I like what the brushes leave behind and their softer feel. More play and experiments are called for, but so far I like what I see.
I found the paints to be fun to use, but it took a little getting used to a somewhat gummy feel at times . . . .I would expect this without the lovely buttery feel of oil saturated paint.
This is, by no means, a good painting . . . .but it was an effort for the day and a revealing exercise about a variation on a medium. For international travel, I think these paints will be just fine! And I won’t have to hassle buying materials on the other end (where every place and art supplie are unfamiliar) that are prohibited on airplanes. I may even take them out here to see what they’ll do under real circumstances.

Plein Air Quick Draw

“Walnut Avenue”
oil on cavas panel, 8″ x 10″
This last weekend, I participated in a plein aire event organized by the local art museum. It is a fun event and turned out to be nicely profitable in many ways for me. Not that you care about that part, but I did get to meet and talk with some very uniquely talented and thoughtful artists. . . . . . and that alone was worth the time spent. I sold five of my paintings and made a few solid contacts for future business. The event attracts a very knowlegeable and informed crowd who are not only interested in art, but willing and able to acquire pieces for their collections.
On the last day of the show, which runs Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, the museum holds a “Quick Draw” competition. I had planned not to take part, but in the end organized my stuff and went for it. Long story short, the artists check in to have their canvases stamped and signed at 8:30 AM. They are to choose a site, set up, paint and return to the museum with a finished painting by 11:00 AM. That is roughly 2 hours of painting time when one considers set up and take down of equipment. I actually had quite a few giggles in this little event . . . .and had an opportunity to step out of myself and see my real painting process.
As you can see by the resultant image, being rushed is not conducive to fine finished work . . . . . . . . . .which made me notice that I LIKE fine finished pieces. I could have spent another hour tweaking this painting and bringing out the aspects I wished to refine and show off. It also showed me that I could, do this and that in order to do so, I would just need to get used to “plowing through” to a conclusion . . . .what ever that was. I found it to be exciting! Moreover, it might be a discipline I should develop more in order to train myself to be more direct, less fussy and to refine my value and color perception so as to get colors and values correct on the first attempt.
A very valuable experience it was!

More Truth About Shapes and Trees


Sketchbook Pages of studies
More about studying trees and their shapes. . . . . . Even after ten sketches, yesterday, I wasn’t sure of a universal profile that would identify cottonwoods. Today, many more drawings of cottonwoods revealed that there is, indeed, a universality about them. While there is much variation among these trees, there certainly is a FAN Shape that typifies their nature. As you can see from the sketches above, there is much variation in their fan shapes . . .from skinny to fat . . .but the shape still is there. Also, I noted they are somewhat flat on top. No points. And one other cool distinguishing factor. . . . . . .they are built of a series of “clumps” that have volume . . . .shown by value changes of light and shadow. You can see a few value sketches here of the ‘clumps’ stacked into a fan shape (with a few significant chops out of the edges of the fan). These clumps also help identify the tree.

As Frank Gardiner pointed out in his comments yesterday, the trees have ‘holes,’ too. They are important.

The lesson here is to study your trees carefully. The effort pays off in a great way; you have a memory of the trees and how they are constructed so that you can improvise on your canvas and get the idea across to the viewer. Look at a series of maple trees, or elms, or some of the pine varieties. Each has a distinctive shape.

The last photo here is of a series of cottonwoods near some farm buildings and a sketch of some different variations on the fan theme of a line of cottonwoods. Note, these trees often have multiple trunks, too. Interesting.

You may not be interested in cottonwoods. However, in building art about a subject, the more you can modify and create changes in the reality, yet retain the character of it, the more your own style comes to life. It is important to be able to improvise! That can only happen when you keep the core truth about the subject . . . .Jazz is the same exact thing: Improvisation around a melody. We still hear the melody, but the stylization is mezmorizing.

On The Value Of Experiments

“Bridging the Gap”

oil on canvas panel, 8″ x 10″
Every day is different when it comes to painting. I never know what the day will hold until I approach the easel . . . .unless I am working on a specific project. Then, I am like a wild dog with a bone. Nothing will dissuade my purpose until it is finished.

As you know, Dear Reader, I have been busy this last week with plein air work . . .and I had to interrupt a project of a very complex studio watercolor to do this plein air work. Work? Whoops! This isn’t work !! This is absolute entertainment . . . .at least until I get to the place where I am saying to myself, “What am I going to do with THIS?” Or, “There has to be a better solution to this problem than this meager outcome!”

And so I experiment . . . .or do ‘studies.’ Many artists I know believe the studies or experiments to be a waste of time and materials. In my opinion, failures or lackluster results are our constant companions in the pursuit of good art. It is these kinds of outcomes that frustrate us and awaken the curious artist to new methods or approaches or, the thirst for growth.

I recently visited the website of Scott Christensen, a master painter. On one of his pages, this quote appears . . . . .

“Nature does not capriciously scatter her secrets as golden gifts to lazy poets and luxurious darlings, but imposes task when she presents opportunity.” Edgar Payne

Opportunity is with us artists constantly. How can we ignore the siren of successfully answering that opportunity with good painting? We can’t. What’s more, we must constantly try new ways, new subjects and build our skills with executing values, colors, edges, techniques and designs. Any one of these things is worth years of study!

Simply put, we must constantly step away from the projects to accomplish good practices and set up our growth to the next tier of skill. I repeat: Constantly. It is a part of the pulse of the artist’s life. In this game, ‘good enough’ just isn’t good enough. We must always reach for better.

Yesterday’s piece was one of those quickie experiments . . .to use an orange toned canvas and paint thin to allow that orange to show through in key places. This was a one hour test. Here is the outcome. There are parts I ignored, such as foreground textures and shapes, just to see what would happen IF I completed the test or experiment.

My studio is full of ‘experiments.’ In fact, most everything I do is an experiment. If I have that attitude about every painting, then the fear of failure escapes me and I make new discoveries about my work.

Priceless !!

The Challeges of Contra Jour

“Bandits at 3 O’Clock!”
Watercolor, 30″ x 22″
Contra Jour, or backlit subjects make for big challenges in color and value management. Typically, everything facing the painter is in shadow, which completely affects color. Hues in the light are vitally different than hues out of the light, both in value and temperature . . . .and maybe intensity, also. Right off, with the big value differences set up by glaring light pouring straight at the viewer, all sorts of gradations need to be considered to transition into the lit areas . . . .and cast shadows cannot be whimpy. So, often, the watercolorist might be faced with restating (painting over) values and colors.

In the world of watercolor, “stuff” begins to accumulate the moment one paints over a dry coat of paint (glazing). That “stuff,” as I refer to it, can roll up and create what watercolor painters call MUD. That is, as the different pigments get painted over one another, they are also loosened from the surface of the paper . . . .some commercial pigments do this more than others . . . .then they begin to mix and mingle with the pigments being glazed. When working with warm accents inside cool passages, this happens often. When attempting to put the front side of a form (out of the light), such as these figures, the painter is confronted with very cool areas (reflecting the sky in this case) and warm areas of reflected light from the ground. These guys’ white jump suits presented such a challenge. How to mix the warms and cools to avoid making gray, sooty, neutrals . . . commonly known as MUD. Click on the image for higher resolution and you can see areas where these challenges became apparent.

I have spent over a week wrestling with this problem and building a convincing painting of a contra jour street scene using figures dressed in white. I am not sure of this, but it seems there are a bazillion less challenging subjects and approaches. Like a nice bowl of oranges, or perhaps some nice boats, or maybe a sweet landscape.

Then, there is the challenge of making the colors painted come out on my monitor and to cause Photoshop to behave as I would like it.

Would someone please shoot me? Please !!

Spring In New York City

“Greenwhich Morning”
watercolor, 15″ x 22″
A few posts ago, I mentioned that my watercolor, “Pop’s Corner” had been accepted into the American Watercolor Society’s annual show. Being the prestigous event that it is, I could not stay away. So, my wife and I packed up and flew to NYC to attend the big awards dinner and to meet many of the world’s best watercolor painters.
Myrna Wacknov’s painting, “Reflections on Turning 65” was also accepted and won a wonderful award. So, we joined her and her husband, Mark Mehaffey (who received the silver medal award) and wife, and the award winning Donna Zagotta & hubby for a wonderful, exciting four days in NYC. Name it, and we did it. Broadway show? Of course! Big Corned Beef sandwiches in famous delis? Natch!! How about subways and ferrys? Yesss! And we even opted to spend an emotional day at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. ( I must say Ms. Liberty is waaaaay more than I expected !! She is enormous and overwhelming!)
Dinners, Lunches, breakfasts and lots of good cheer and laughter accompanied us where ever we went. We took tons of photos of painting subjects and made some tall commitments about raising the painting bar even more in order to be accepted into next years’ show.
Upon returning, I could not get certain images out of my head . . .so I set about painting immediately to turn out *something* and get limbered up for some more serious painting. . . .. which is the image above . . . .this scene is a simple common look in the Greewhich Village / Washington Square vicinity. It was fun to paint . . .but certainly tighter than my normal work.
The painting was hardly done when the flu bug came home to roost and has both wife and I on our backsides most of the days . . .it’s been more than ten days! . . . .but not all is lost. I am hard at work every day at the easel working on a VERY complex piece to enter into another national show. So far, I have nearly 50 hours already into this new piece and . . . .probably another 50 to go!
I am still alive . . .and back to painting, which is as it should be!