Fixing a Big Problem


“The Overseer”
Watercolor 22 x 30 inches
After finishing my painting, “The Overseer,” last week I was perplexed by the total lack of color variation in the shadows and the harsh contrast in the painting. I worked hard on Photoshop to try to correct the problem to no avail. After much consideration, I decided to repaint the entire painting. There were a few small compositional fixes I could make, such as the fire hydrant in the foreground and the dark car on the left margin. Both needed to be moved inboard a bit. But those were the least of the problems. My biggest difficulty was what was happening inside my expensive camera . . . .
I have learned from a photographer friend that digital cameras average and compress the exposure data in a picture. That is, the necessary aperture setting for white areas are smaller, or less exposure time is needed, than for black. When an image has both white and black, as well as middle values, the camera must measure what is required for the extremes and average them to affect an acceptable exposure. The problem is that in that averaging, much of the collected data is compressed and some is actually discarded in order to arrive at a JPEG image. In that process, any subtle color shifts are typically lost.
So my problem was two fold: I had exposure problems and a painting problem where I had not expressed the necessary color variation well enough and had too large of a value interval (black to white) in the painting. Both had to be fixed. I went back to the easel vowing to keep my goals of keeping value extremes to a cautious minimum and to put more recognizable color variation into the painting. I could not go into that state of ecstasy that takes us painters away to another planet for as long as we are applying the paint. I had to stay alert.
In the end, the painting was an improvement over the first one. The difficulty then was to find out how to get around all that compression and averaging inside the camera. I found the solution in photographing in “RAW” mode. That is, every pixel is recorded as is, in Red, Green or Blue, without modifying or averaging the data. I have found that most professional photographers use this mode for that very reason. I had some studying to do to learn about this and to decipher my expensive camera to be able to pull it off.
I often marvel about how much I have had to learn about other stuff than painting in order to produce a decent painting, or photo of one. I have been struggling with photo issues for decades! Then there is the other stuff, too, like priming canvas, or the mediums in which different paints are suspended, or comosition, or what ever . . . .which I won’t go into here. It all has to work in concert.
Surely, you can see the difference in the two versions above. Do you think I was right to step up and re-tackle the whole thing?

A Breakthrough

“Straddling the Mean”
Watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
This last week was a big week in my class, entitled “Watercolor Beyond the Obvious.” It is a ten week long course with multiple goals: to paint a series of paintings around the same subject, to learn about and apply the elements and principles of design and to get past mental barriers preventing success. The class is lively with lots of lecture and examples presented, while the participants paint two 22″ x 30″ paintings each week and bring them for critique. Each class session features over 40 paintings for the class to see critiqued.
The above painting was a preparation for class to illustrate the design principle of Harmony. It also was used to introduce the idea of the Golden Mean and how it might be applied in composing a painting.
Using M. Graham’s richly pigmented watercolor paints, this painting was developed using the red and blue green complimentary colors . . . . .opposites on the color wheel and showing a possible way of relating the opposing / contrasting colors and values via the small colored lines across the picture plane. On the red side, the blue green, blues, and greens were employed in the little line strips to relate to the other side of the painting where the same colors appeared in the rectangular shape. And, conversely, the strips within that shape were colored in the colors that appear in the big square shape on the left. The objective was to relate the two sides.
George Post, a famous California Regionalist painter from the past taught his classes to “paint relationships.” That is bucket full of words which sailed right over my head the first time I heard them. But now, after many years of painting, I could not agree more! Relating dissimilar things by emphasizing their similarities, or imposing similarities, as I did in the above painting, is what Post meant. It helps bring a unity to the painting and offers the artist seven different avenues to approach imposing some sort of relationship . . . . .through the use of line, size, shape, direction, color, value or texture. As you can see, line and color were used to impose something of a relationship between the contrasting spaces in the above painting.
It was a big lesson for everyone, including me! It took me many years of painting to come to this understanding so I could express it in words and show it visually, too. A breakthrough!

Thinking Compositionally

“The Big Stick”
watercolor 22 x 22 inches

Compositional Sketches

There are plenty of those who are saying under their breath, “I don’t like these pictures of Linemen.” In other words, they might be thinking that these ‘pictures’ aren’t cute enough or pretty enough to decorate their house. Many painters today subconsciously appraise paintings from that point of view. Those artists are confined to thinking purely about the subject of the painting and how precious it might be in a decorative environment, instead of assessing the painting on the basis of its artistic merit.

That said, I have been wrestling with this subject for a few months and today I broke through to a new level of thinking. I finally was able to separate my compulsive little pea brain from trying to replicate the subject and moved into considering the abstract composition FIRST. What a difference it makes!

Seriously, I do know better. In fact, I teach this in my classes. But it isn’t always easy to make the shift. I might be the teacher, but I am vulnerable to habit just like the next person.

Let me illustrate what I am writing about . . . .refer to the sketches you see above . . . . . . .there is, essentially, two values in each of these sketches. It wasn’t until I reached the bottom sketch that I realized that I should consider the dark values as ONE SHAPE and how it sits in the rectangle or the square! Notice the little teeny sketch to the right of the bottom sketch. Doesn’t that abstract shape appeal to your sense of design? It certainly does mine! It was there that I realized (once again my mind says, Oh! I remember!!) that it isn’t the details but the arrangement of the value shapes and the ratio of their sizes that appeals to our deep abstract aesthetic senses.

Knowing that, I grabbed an old painting, flipped it to the backside, and began drawing in the big dark shape. Once drawn, I could see where some modifications were necessary . . . namely to move from a rectangle to a square format . . .there was an awkward space on the left. Then, the decision to put the horizontals at a slight oblique also added a nice tension to the composition. Also, I recognized that the crossbar on the background pole was not a good angle, so revised that, too, in order to drive the eye to the white helmets.

Once drawn, I pulled the three inch brush from its holster and began sloppily painting intp the dark shape and made sure to slop some color variation into the shape but keep the values the same (that was yesterday). The lights and the darks were set . . . .I left it to dry until today . . . .(and worried a bit about the light shapes of the light on the back of the one figure and the light helmets. I was concerned that those light shapes were too isolated.) It needed more of an abstraction of light passing through the composition.

In short, I lifted here and there to add more of a passage of light through the piece, enhanced a few darks here and there, pushed a few warm cool contrasts and carefully kept myself from ever considering details. . . . .or logic. For example, I decided not to fill in the cross bar brace and not to put an underside dark on the crossbar to the left of the pole . . . .why? Because those details would disturb the composition. Yes, those details would make sense but would affect the negative shapes.

I know this is a long explanation, but I believe this to be the place where I break through in the series to much stronger work. Thanks for being patient.

Under My Skin . . .

“The Power of Line”
Watercolor 18 x 24 inches

Thinking of Sinatra’s song by the same title (and Michael Buble’) “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” . . . .this subject has finally reached the point of bothering me in my sleep. The subject is under my skin.

Drawing figures who are at work is no easy task. Composing them inside a rectangle so there is energy and content spilling out of that rectangle is the part that is nagging at my every constant thought. Mind you, I have plenty on my plate, being the prez of NWS and also working part time in high tech AND teaching. It seems I am doing a bit of each of these things daily . . . . (spinning plates!) . . . . .and these linemen and composing something of them is bugging me!
It has reached the point where if I have a pencil or pen in hand (or nearby) I’ll be doodling them on anything! The business papers have them. Phone lists have them. Recipes have them. The phone book has them. Meeting agendas have them . . . .everything except my checks . . .and maybe these guys will appear there soon.
As you might see, I reversed a drawing of a painting done back in December, added the element of the near vertical pole in the background in order to involve the other edges of the rectangle. Between the poles and cross arm lives an interesting negative space into which my ‘boys’ are placed. Their location of being scrunched into a corner with lots of space behind and above them provides the feeling of height. As you can see, this piece is rather loose, which I like . . . . but that is because I am still experimenting with different ways to say what needs to be said (what ever that is right now) and am painting on the backs of old unsuccessful paintings.
Why do that, you ask? I will, no doubt, gobble up 20 to 30 sheets of paper before I will begin to settle into a rhythm of confidence with the subject. It is coming along, but I have more work to do. There will come a point where I will be certain of what I want to say and how to say it . . . . what surface, what brushes, what textures, what edges and angles, what shapes and what color strategies. For now, while they are bothering my consciousness, I am taking heed that there is something more to do and to say. So . . . I am trying and waiting for those big sudden breakthroughs to appear.
The trick is to keep at it and don’t give up and take advantage of the fact that they snoop around in my dreams.

Playing Fast and Loose

“High Powered Guy”
Mixed Water-media 15 x 22 inches

I am in my workshop season right now. Between traveling and teaching, working and leading a large art society, painting time is preciously little. So, I have to hurry and grab every minute I can . . . and mow the lawn, weed the garden, tidy up the studio, cook occasionally etc. (you know the drill.)

While I am doing all this, my series of linemen is eating away at my thoughts. So, I am slamming paintings together quickly, mostly as trials and experiments to try out new, more simplified approaches, such as have been mentioned in the last few posts.
I want you, the reader, to see for yourself what happens when an artist is on to something and the trials we go through to get to some worthy art. Sure! I can copy photos in this series. I have over 300 pix that I can use, if i wanted to do that. I am much more interested in making a revelation or a statement rather than a report or copy. That is going to take a lot of trials and errors. Eventually, stuff will roll out and be consistent with my internal vision (which I cannot quite see yet). The ideas and trials are already showing me possible paths and approaches.
This painting was a bit of a struggle in the composition department . . . .that is where to put him and how to structure the perspective so that a feeling of being right there pervades the work. I am getting closer!
It took deleting the pole and placing it much further to the right along the margin and using the cross arm to integrate the figure to the rectangle of the painting. The use of the element of line (no pun) to show the wires and cables and some edges in the piece bring another level of excitement to the surface.
Again, mixed media: acrylic underpainting, watercolor, gouache and tempera were all used to provoke a sense of solidity and roughness in the piece. I am thinking this painting could set up a very serious piece. But I am off to teach another workshop in a few days. Maybe I will get to the serious work next month!!! I gotta hang in and keep painting to keep the flow going.

Oh Cee Dee !

“The Bucket Crane”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

“Leaning Out”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

“Two Hardhats”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

Yes, OCD! Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I think I have it. Maybe not full tilt, but I certainly act it, now and then. I wonder if it is something I eat. . . . .

I have been ruminating for a few months on how to simplify my linemen paintings and take them into another dimension. That isn’t the part that is OCD. I finally decided, after a brief visit with Christopher Schink, that I would resort to playing with big flat shapes, with very little detail. All one needs do, is look at Schink’s masterworks and one would immediately understand my choice to begin there. I certainly don’t wish to copy his approach,(as if anyone could!). (Obviously a master, he is, eh?!). Instead, just focusing on big flat shapes will lead me to value and color approaches as well as texture and line.
These linemen are super subjects to play with because of the shapes they can generate when connected to their work and / or equipment. As you saw a few days ago, Dear Reader, I sketched 19 of the rascals and came up with some interesting abstractions of value and shape. I developed more sketches . . .near 40 now . . . . . . so, it is time to see where I can go with paint. Working this subject in series is bound to shake out some new, appealing ideas.
The OCD part comes in during my dreams! . . . . . not wanting to do anything except paint! I find 3AM seems to be my wake up time when in this OCD mode . . . .and definitely NOT on purpose! I just can’t stop thinking about this stuff. So, it awakens me . . .even when sick or exhausted. So, I get out of bed and go to the studio to try some of my ideas and experiments.
Here are a few trial paintings. Mind you, these are just trials. When taking a 3 x 4 inch sketch up to 22 x 30 inch painting, spaces can look very empty and boring if not paid their due attention. These trials are to get a feel for the ideas in paint (usually on the back of some old, failed painting) then make some key decisions about design, then develop the paintings seriously. I have to shake the Schink influence and stick to my own vision . . . .and that, it seems is the cause of my OCD. I can’t leave these thoughts alone!
More later . . . . . .obviously!! 😉