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.

Resurrection

“Edge of Summer”
watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
SOLD
At this time of year, I clean out my flat files to find what to exhibit at my annual Open Studio.
There are always a few unfinished paintings on which I became stuck, or unable to finish for one reason or another . . . . .usually it is some design indecision and huge doubt about continuing that causes me to stop and put the painting away. Often times, the painting will lean against my studio wall where I can see it. Eventually, the idea becomes stale and the painting ends up languishing in the flat file . . . .sometimes for 5 or more years!!
In the clean out process, I will invariably come across one or two that yell out to me to finish. And they do so with instant knowledge of what needs doing. You might even say that this is a resurrection from the boneyard because many simply wait to be destroyed and thrown out.
It is nice to be able to pull one out, now and then, which speaks to me so loudly. This one did . . . . . . .and I’m now happy that I saved it for the time to let my knowledge catch up to what was needed in the painting.

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!

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 !!!

No Sooner . . .

“Edge of Quail Hollow”
Oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches
No sooner do I think of something, often, and someone else publishes a commentary about it.

As you know, I have been plein air painting like a crazy fool . . . .just racking up brush mileage. While I have been getting better by increments, I have also noticed that I haven’t been paying much attention to good value composition while in the field. Hmmm! That just isn’t like me! To not plan for that, is to plan for mundane, not so cool, unaccomplished paintings. Then, Robert Genn (http://painterskeys.com/) published this missive in his twice weekly letter about value patterns. ( I think this guys is psychic, sometimes! (or, I am)) ;-))

He made note that it is often after coming in from being sidetracked by trying to capture a scene that we realize, days later, that we didn’t give composition its due effort . . . .and then we set about repairing the image to come to life with a strong pattern of dark and light. Now, that does NOT mean contrasting tones. What he means is a strong proportion of massed dark shades as an organized shape (or grouping of shapes) next to a mass of lights. Mind you, this isn’t about objects or things. It is about groupings of assigned values in order to pull off a strong abstract design onto which the objects are superimposed.

Some painters refer to this as Notan, which is a Japanese word for the same idea . . .massing darks and lights in an organized pattern. This pattern is usually what makes a composition sing out . . . . is is NOT the things in the picture or the subject. We painters call this ‘design’ . . . .or, at least, value design.

So, I caught myself making some re-statements in my recent paintings. Those chunks of dark, or little select areas of clean light against a dark are what makes the viewer sit up and take notice. Thanks for reaffirming what matters, Mr. Genn!

P.S. Robert Genn has one of the finest, most informative art blogs on the internet. His biweekly letters are always welcome and get read, often with more investigation following. If you aren’t familiar or haven’t subscribed, you might want to give it a trial. It is very non commercial and worth your time. Here’s the link: http://painterskeys.com/

Resolving an Incubating Painting

“Yellow”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches
After sitting quietly covered in a corner of my studio for almost 9 months, I have finally resolved and finished the complex painting, “Yellow.”

I have been preparing for another workshop to be given to the Sierra Watercolor Society this coming week. Intense preparation work such as I have been doing for the last several days triggers deeply anchored urges to paint. Making visual aids and pulling already painted examples together is an almost mindless task. When I moved the cover aside and discovered this painting still waiting (yes, discovered is the right word. I had nearly forgotten it.) for me to resolve the problems. I pulled it out of it’s hiding place and looked at it. Suddenly the solution struck me: It was that relationship thing again. Colors and values had gotten away from me! There was so many parts in this painting that, while needed to support the overall idea, their relationships to each other had to be revised.

The buildings and banners against the large wall had to drop back in aerial perspective and required much closer value intervals ( less contrast.) The purity of the color of the middle ground had to be preserved in order to hold the eye. The yellows needed to ‘yelp’ but had to also fit with the rest of the painting. The signal in the upper right corner was too distracting and had to be toned down, yet brought forward. Shadows needed darkening and an overall value pattern / composition had to be established.

With the help of a violet gray glaze over some areas, shadow darkening in places, a little bit of judicious lifting, edge softening and refining and tonality adjustments in some of the yellows, the eye moves through the painting in a very predictable and satisfying way. There is balance in the piece now and a sense of belonging of all the parts. This one was a tuffy!! (At least, I think so now . . . . maybe it will be different in a month or so.)

The Sketch and The Urge

“Almost There”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches
There are curious times for us artists. We have strange urges, sometimes. Those urges have to do with compelling images trying to come out.

This sketch has been in my sketch book for many months . . .probably a year. And every time I go near it, it calls to me. I could feel the emotion of it, but could not put my finger on the sort of color scheme I needed. Then, on a rare quiet moment, alone in my studio while in North Carolina last month, I could stand it no longer. Out came my largest flat brush and lots of reds. I painted furiously and put in the directions, big movements and large shapes. . . . .and I made some serious errors . . . .Edges for one. And there was one edge on a shadow which rode the edge of the path that simply came from bad judgment.

I kept the painting around for weeks. Looked and looked and looked at it without resolution. Then, today, I decided something had to be done . . . .that urge to complete it was nagging. There is no model or place to seek for correction. It is all an abstract notion that came into a sketch.

It sure isn’t much when it comes to being a fancy, recognizable place, but it sure does speak to me at a level I have yet to put my finger on. And in a mat, it just slays me!!

Do you suppose it’s the reds?

When is a Painting Finished?

“Park Guell”
watercolor 24 x 18 inches
When is a painting finished? The famous question for which there must be many, many answers has been asked by tens of thousands of painting students. If you begin a painting 8 years ago, stop and put it away, take it out this month and add the touches it needed badly . . . . is it considered a painting done recently? Or should it be considered a painting done 8 years ago?

I sure don’t have the answers to that question . . .or the one before that. I find that the more experienced I become (read as ‘older’) I can see many more ‘needs’ that an unfinished painting has. Perhaps it all has to do with the spirit of what you are trying to communicate. In this piece, it was the ‘jazz’ of the shapes and the location of Park Guell in Barcelona. I painted much of this painting with my great friend Montserrat at my side. . . .both of us talking, visitors coming by and making comments . . .great friendship in a great place busy at work with making art. Mind you, I said making art . . . .not copying what we saw. We were finding ways to make shapes fit together in interesting ways and to subdue and emphasize different things. Add patterns and textures where they weren’t in order to create interesting and compelling relationships among the parts of the painting.

I really did just finish this painting but a few weeks ago. And it really was in my flat file for nearly 8 years. It had been waiting for me to grow enough to see what needed to be done in order to make a successful painting. Because of the time spent with Montserrat (Muntsi) and the location, I could hardly scrap it 8 years ago. This painting says so much more to me than ‘a place I have been.’

Isn’t that really the reason we paint? . . .to capture a spirit? A feeling? A mood? I suppose the painting is finished when we look at the painting and can feel that spirit.

If you are interested, click on this link to see images of Park Guell . . .designed and built by Antonio Gaudi.

A Fourth Mood

“Fourth Mood”

watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

Working from a class demo, I Re-worked the problems and finished this piece in a nocturnal mood idea. I had messed up some of the light values in the back and had intended to silhouette the rear boats and buildings against a lighter sky. Having messed that up, I took a reversed track and dropped the surrounding values (sky) way downward to bring the boats and buildings into an altogether different lighting situation.

While doing this I am also running a second class where discussions are afoot about clear separtations of values between light and shadow. I’ll be posting early next week about that here, also. Meanwhile, I am still messin’ round with the reflective piece of Miroir d’ Eau.