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.

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.

Using Opaques with Watercolor

Watercolor, 22 x 15 inches

A few posts ago, I mentioned that I have been fooling around with opaques. Namely, I have been using gouache in addition to using the transparent pigments in the same painting. The opaques have been used separate from the transparents to provide a subtle contrast. For example, the tree in the foreground uses gouache in foliage. While this helps the foliage stand off the underlying colors and values, it also has the effect of making the tree advance in the space . . . .or seem as though it is standing freely in space.

In addition, the opaques are used in parts of the sky to lend the atmospheric effects and the effects of diffuse light. Obviously, there is much much more to learn with these pigments and the ideas are literally keeping me awake at night! That is the exciting part of being an artist! The newness never seems to wear off . . . . .there is excitement at every turn for me. Many of my blog readers know me and can vouch for my enthusiasm over painting. It seems just as boredom begins to lurk, some new idea comes up and springs me into action . . . .and then the energy kicks in and I am off and running to paint a bunch of new pieces.

The last several paintings on this blog have employed the use of opaques in a variety of places. Maybe you can see where. Or better yet, why not come by the studio this weekend to see, in person, the paintings. As you already know, it is open studio weekend join us!!!

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!!!!

Testing Limits

“Chestnut St.”
Unfinished– watercolor 22 x 30
When are we NOT LEARNING how to paint? Do we ever stop learning? Should an artist only paint what he or she knows? If I am the person to answer, I would say absolutely NOT to the last question. It is ALWAYS about learning!

So, what should an artist be stretching to learn after painting for 22 years?

Let’s start here: How about learning more about one’s capability? What about testing one’s self to remain in control no matter the circumstances at the easel? What of practice to smooth off rough edges in a project or series? How about testing “What Ifs” in color strategies? If you are a watercolorist, how about painting on wet paper and hurrying the process so the paper doesn’t dry? Or, what about a challenge to finish a full sheet in 90 minutes and driving one’s self a little bit nutz in the effort?

All of these things are about stretching. They are about experiencing circumstances out side of the comfort zone more often . . . . .so when they really do arise in a serious painting situation, the artist is more comfortable in working through the ‘emergency.’ It is in these times of horsing around to find out what happens that an artist gains precious experience.

So!! You tell me. Which is more valuable? A wide range of experience, or a few successful paintings done in the artist’s comfort zone? Do you suppose there is value in being able to anticipate the outcome of something the artist does, either by accident or deliberately? Of course there is! It is called mastery of the circumstances. And the only way one develops mastery is to try different stuff and create challenges. In other words, expand the comfort zone. So what if the painting tests aren’t masterworks?

The above painting was done on wet, saturated paper inside of a time limit . . .in a fairly large format to cause me to hurry to keep up with the drying process. I had fun in the challenge, didn’t finish, messed up perspective, but found some lovely little passages that made me want to do this again and again.

The Ultimate Challenge

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?

Experimentation and Inspiration

“Oaks on a Wall”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches
Often, in execution of the lessons I give in classes and workshops, I am distracted from a deep inspiration to create a specific painting. Other kinds of distractions come up, too, but all of them frequently take me off that inspired track. That is one good reason for taking a week away from everyone and everything to just concentrate on painting. Such was the case a few weeks ago in Yosemite.

Returning to class from Yosemite, I had to give a mindless demo of different ways to create textures or to give a sense of surface in a painting. I say mindless because it was simply a blank piece of paper and a bunch of different examples of stamping, lifting, spraying, splattering, smudging, dripping etc . . . .all with no image or intention of making a painting.

Meanwhile, in the back of my mind was a vision I had seen through the eyes of a zoom lens . . . .the face of one of the sheer granite walls towering hundreds of meters above my place on the valley floor. Full grown trees grew out of cracks on the stone! Yet those trees and the abstract patterns in the rock had me buzzing inside.

I took the demo sheet home and began experimenting with more textures and colors and ‘stuff’ just to see what I could come up with that **might** suggest those walls and their abstractions on that same sheet . . .just slobbering layer over layer.

Often, it is the coming together of sheer experimentations and the visions from inspired ideas that create works which arrest a viewer and hold their interest . . . .much more that a tired scene of something everyone knows.

Clearly, to be different, one must do different things at the easel. The painter must allow the paint to act like paint rather than conform to some notion about looking like something else. Experiments can show us painters new ways to consider our beautiful mediums. In fact, I believe most of our work as artists must be connected to experimenting.


“Edge of Summer”
watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
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.