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!”

Size Matters . . . !


“Bucket Crane II”

Watercolor 22 x 30 inches

So many times I have painted a subject too small for the size of the format on which I was painting (the paper.)

Whaddayamean, Mike? Too small? The details were right. The ‘picture’ looked like the subject.

Yes, yes. I understand. But one must look beyond the details and see the RELATIONSHIP of sizes in subject versus the rectangle in which one paints. The comparison says soooo much!

Usually, for the subject to have the necessary power in a painting, BIG is the answer . . . . . . .so big that it crowds the edges and spills over the edges of the rectangle to assert its power. Or those shapes may appear to be floating in space and not connected to anything if the subject shapes are too small for the size of the paper.

There are times, however, when that feeling of floating in space might be necessary. . . . . . .like the painting above. I painted this idea once before in the previous post. If you compare the two paintings, one can see there is quite a different feeling in this versus the last. In this piece, the shape appears further from the viewer and definitely higher off the ground. If you fear heights as I do, then a painting like this might affect you emotionally putting a shiver of fear into your consciousness.

This is where it makes a lot of sense to sketch first (before painting) and do so inside of a rectangle of the same proportions as that on which you will be painting. By doing so, one can see (and should examine) the size relationship between the rectangle and the subject. It matters!!!

White Izzzn’t White

“Sully’s Fresh Crab”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

Nope! It just Izzn’t!

Our eyeballs just can’t see what we think we see.

Yesterday was another beautiful day in the sun . . .warm and bright . . . .a perfect day for Butch, my painting buddy, and I to go out and paint. So we went back to the harbor where lots and lots and lots of white boats live. I am telling you true: What seems white just is NOT!

The little device you see above is a value viewer. It is very helpful to look at an area, (such as the side of a white boat hull in shadow) to judge the value. When peeking through the little hole and comparing the value of the white in shadow, one can instantly see that it is more a mid value than a light white. Then . . . comes the problem of getting that value onto the paper or canvas. That big piece of white paper can really throw off our judgment, too. We make a paint mark on the big white page and the mark seems darker than it really is because we are unconsciously comparing all that white field with the value of the mark . Yikes! That little viewer helps.

BUT . . . .there is still another problem (these difficulties are some of the reasons artists find plein air painting so difficult) . . . .that is if you are painting watercolor, the paint fades after it dries. Which compounds the value difficulty!!!!! One must be able to predict how the value of a mark or wash after it is dry. GAAAADS !!!! Is there any end to this stuff??? !!

How does one solve it? The viewer helps. The rest of it is fixed with plain old mileage.

Huh? Did you say Mileage?

Yep! That is what I said. Let me clarify: BRUSH mileage. Translated, it means tons of practice.

I have been painting for 20 plus years and still find plein air painting full of problems and difficulties. Yesterday was no exception. After getting home from a 4 hour painting stint and looking at the painting in normal indoor light, I could see the values of my boat hulls were wrong . . .not dark enough. Like I said, white just izzn’t white!!! So, several glazes later (and spoiled pristine washes) I came up with this painting. A lot of fussing and much self talk about what I will do next time and solemn vows about not letting this happen again, I finished the painting attempt.

You may think this is an okay painting. It was certainly fun and most instructive, but I simply MUST go back and try again and again. Butch and I discussed this aspect of being a painter: the compulsion to get better . . . . .and it is indeed a compulsion. Maybe someday, with enough brush mileage under my belt, it might happen. For now, though, it is best to focus on doing the best I can and having fun in the process because to be out there is simply a total gassss!!!!

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.

Why Bother to Doodle??

A doodle to settle down . .
Several years ago, a painter friend was telling me about studying with George Post. Yes, the famous California Regionalist painter. I asked, “what does he teach?” The answer was short, quick and unforgettable. She replied, “Paint Relationships.”
I nodded with that “of course” look on my face while I wondered “what in the hell does he mean by thaaaat?”
That question haunted me for years. It wasn’t until four or five years ago that I awoke one day with the answer. I had been reading books about design . . .(not just looking at the pictures!) . . . . . . .and, while asleep, something gelled in my mind. I understood what he meant! Man!! That took some time to digest that one!!
There are seven ways to cause things to relate. Yep! Seven. The very same as the elements of design: Line, Size, Shape, Direction, Color, Value and Texture. Take any two dissimilar shapes in a painting and one can relate them via manipulation of any of the seven elements. Color and Texture, for example . . . .give both shapes similar color and texture and they will relate.
A painting is a great combining of all of the elements. . . .those elements are the marks made on the canvas or paper. Relating all the parts of the painting is the art. Of course, there are different kinds of relationships, like absolute ooposition or harmony. The goal, usually, is unity . . . . .to make all the parts seem as though there is a feeling of belonging in the painting. I can assure you, it has nothing to do with things or objects.
So, then . . .should I set out to do a masterpiece every time I paint? Heck NO!! There are times when it is necessary to do warm up exercises . . .or when it is necessary to simply try something that might be niggling away at our consciousness . . . .or to just paint to feel the brush slithering out paint onto a surface. Doodling has a place in painting. To put it simply, to just try stuff without fear of ruining a ‘masterpiece.’
It is my contention that all we artists do is try. (there is a big difference between ‘try’ and ‘do.’) We move paint around and often hope for the best. So, why not doodle for the sake of finding out new solutions?
The piece above was a ‘sanity doodle.’ That is to say, to paint just to keep my sanity. I was in Kanuga working hard to bring tough subject matter to reality for a group of driven workshop participants. Preparation for such anxious people can steal all one’s painting consciousness, much less painting time. So, an hour before class, I doodled. Yep. Pointless, silly, exercises I made up just to see if I could find different ways to cause different areas of the painting to relate.
The painting will never, ever see a mat, much less a frame. But it does call to me to remind me that the doodling not only helped me settle down and be ready for class, but it taught me a few more little nuances about relationships that I needed to fully understand . . .and I will put that to work in a serious painting one day, maybe . . . . .or maybe not. But I feel more comfy in the knowledge that when needed, I can establish relationships in any painting. Doodling has shown me that.

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!!!!

Planely Scattered

“Planely Scattered”
watercolor 30 x 22 inches

The title today relates to what my life is like at the moment: Lots of different things going on, very little of it to do with painting.

Scattered, for sure. Distracted, yes, but my thoughts, dreams and actions all are centered around moving pigment in a related way to cause a viewer to entangle him or herself in a visual conversation with a painting.
Decidedly, a painted appeals to us on very deep, often unidentifiable levels. Questions like, Why do I get a feeling in the pit of my stomach when I look at this? Or, What is it that makes me want to touch this painting? Why doesn’t this look like a ‘regular’ watercolor? This piece makes me relax. Why am I so curiously inspecting every inch of this painting?
These should be questions that us painters should be able to answer easily and create the visual stimuli necessary to ensnare them. We are the creators of the work, we should be able to steer the viewer to feeling something.
Often, in lectures to those who will listen, the ideas of what makes a ‘good’ painting are openly discussed and argued. There are three things by category, but those three things involve volumes of explanation. They are “”Content”” . . . .that which arouses our feelings and sensibilities, or a story . . . . .””Design”” . . . .The relationships between the marks on the canvas and/or paper, or how all the painting parts fit together . . . .and “”Technique”” . . . .how the paint is applied and is technique in concert with Design and Content. They are all inter-related in one way or another. That is, the technique and design must support the content. However, if the content is extremely strong, and the design equally as strong, technique can often take a back seat . . . or not be as important as the other two areas.
I am often asked what is necessary to be accepted into juried shows. These three items must be in concert to win that admittance. It may seem daunting to the novice painter, but the study of these aspects of making art is what this journey is all about. It really is much more complicated than just making a pretty picture. To grow and to learn about ourself and all that we can do with art is a high calling. It is a step into our higher self.
Not that there is anything wrong with ‘pretty pictures,’ mind you, but how many millions of them are out there? To put one’s self onto the track of learning all the above aspects about making art is to put our minds to the purpose of being our highest self. I would say that is worthwhile, wouldn’t you?

On Composing

Preliminary Sketches
Composition Idea
Figuring the Large Shapes

The demo in my last post came out well. In my humble artistic opinion, it had less to do with the act of painting and a heckuvalot more to do with the initial planning and composing.

I won’t say that “anyone can copy what they see” because that is simply not true. But seeing is not always the best means of making something extraordinary out of a bunch of ‘things.’ Namely, trees, cliffs, colored succulent, rocks etc. It is much more a task of arrangement of shapes, shapes, values, colors, textures etc. It is in the arranging or composing those elements together that wonderful things happen.

It begins in the early sketches and assessing those sketches for design flaws, then, re-doing the sketches to account for the flaws, re-assessing and making still more changes. In that assessment process, I find that I must remove my thoughts from the subject and move to considering how the various shapes combine to form three to five large shapes and how those large shapes interrelate with the rectangle of the canvas or paper on which the painting is made.

That recent demo (last post) went through this very process. Once I was happy with the large shapes which connected the edges of my rectangle, I could insert and fit the ‘reality’ of the subject into it. It took some cramming, shortening, shrinking, expanding, squeezing, eliminating, adding . . . .well . . . .you get the idea . . . .the subject had to fit into the composed arrangement of large light and dark shapes. Looking at the sketch above, it boils down to an abstraction that is interesting to look at in its own right.

For you painters who are less experienced, the large dark shape that sprawls across this page is actually a combination of many items . . .trees, grasses, succulents, rocks, etc. It is in the act of painting that the artist must use caution and value control to insure that the large dark shape is still expressed through that combination of ‘stuff.’

It may seem like hard work to those who “just want to paint.” But, I believe that the disappointment which most often follows rushing into a painting is a big price to pay. . . . .especially, when we artists put our treasured sweat and tears into the act of painting. It is worth the effort and time to work out the composition first, then set about getting it all on to canvas or paper.

“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!!

Elhorn Road Value Experiment

oil, 8 x 10 inches
I recently watched and listened to an artist do a demo (in oil) and sat bolt upright suddenly, as if I had been slapped, as he mumbled something about value relationships in landscape painting.

Huh? What did he mean by relationship? Oh, did he ever explain it and demonstrate it!

He made something become so very clear that I was absolutely struck by the revelation. Mind you, some of you out there will simply say, “Oh, thaaaat? Of course I knew thaaat,” and wonder why I have been so asleep for the last 20 years. I may have missed it more than once, but this time I really heard it.

The revelation was this: A painting has four kinds of ‘planes;’ the sky plane, the ground plane, upright planes and angled planes. Tall trees can be upright planes or a solid cliff. Just so it is vertical. The ground plane can be the top of a bush, too if it is near parallel with the ground. His mumbled wisdom was that the sky is the lightest valued plane in the painting. The ground plane the second lightest (that is slightly darker than the sky), while the vertical planes were the darkest.

He went on to say that there were accent darks and accent lights which were the darkest of the dark and lightest of the light . . . . .to be used most sparingly.

The point was simply that the ground relates in value to the sky, as do many of the highlights. The angled planes are darker than the ground and, thus, relate. Inside all of these four sets are the values of shadow and light. In the verticals, the darkest shadows occur, while on the angled planes there is a subset of shadow values lighter than the dark vertical set of values, which are related between the ground and the verticals. Another way to say relatedness would be to use the word **compared.**

On he went. And it was amazing to me. I grabbed a painting that I had done en plein air a few weeks ago and put it up on the easel and saw immediately why I wasn’t happy with it. The value relationships were all wrong! In ten minutes I glazed over the painting following the above wisdom and VIOLA ! What an incredible difference! The painting not only worked, but it sang!! Today, into the studio I went to whip up a similar composition using a different color scheme, but promised to paint those relationships of value. Whooopeee!!

This is so worth practicing and making careful note of the values as I mix them on the palette. There is more to this, but for now, I am jazzed to be fiddling with the basic relationship proposition. I can already see that the foreground is much lighter than the sky. . . .and that bluish background shape needs to be a lighter value. What an incredible tool!