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 !!!

Scratching the Itch

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Photo 3.

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Photo 6.

“Noon at Walnut Ave.”
oil on canvas panel, 12 x 16 inches

On my third painting trip to Walnut Ave, I saw for the first time!

You think that’s silly? I walked this street at noon almost daily all the while I was in high school! I drive through the street often. My mom lives nearby. I take guests down that street to see it. On my third painting trip, I suddenly saw it differently . . .and made a huge realization. I saw big, amorphous, individual shapes in the canopy of trees over the street. Wow!!

So, here is a progress documentary of how this painting developed . . . .The decision was made to double the painting size, affording more room to express shape, color and texture.

Photo 1. First, the space division problem from yesterday had to be resolved. The sketch was roughed in using transparent oxide red. This is where I spotted the individual shapes in the canopy. Thin color washes were thrown in using a lot of mineral spirits so to set up a progression from warms to cools to the end of the ‘tunnel.’

Photo 2. Continuing with the thin washes I get excited at the progression of yellow greens to grayed blues down the tunnel. I am becoming aware of another possible space division issue with the band of white light on the street surface across the width of the painting. What to do?

Photo 3. A few warm spots, such as the stop sign and a few points toward the end of the tunnel are put in and a few suggested darks are placed into the under side of the canopy. The warm red tones are such a contrast to the green that they act as parenthesis around the white shape at the end of the tunnel, the center of interest. Perfect! I am getting more excited, but the space division issue needs to be resolved soon.

Photo 4. Now the thicker paint layers are put into the greens and other places. Am conscious of the strokes and their direction as each is placed. They help define the light. A false start with the wrong tone is placed into the foreground shadow . . .it is too dark and too warm . . . .but that sets up the hint of what to do with the space division challenge.

Photo 5. Connect the shadows across that white shape! Link them, thus leading the eye directly back to the center of interest. Now the foreground “lights” are warmed up with a pale yellow and very light magenta (hard to see in the monitor) . . .thus bringing the foreground forward and setting up the recession into the tunnel. Edges are softened along the shadow exteriors and some of the interior ‘holes.’ The suggestion of a line of parked cars is begun.

Photo 6. Fine tuning now before it is time to fold up my easel to go home. I can see some places which need more fine tuning, such as the cool grays toward the end of the tunnel in the canopy. Will have to fiddle with that one, but not today. A few darks are added on the far left and the tree trunk is softened. Maybe that isn’t the correct move. Will need to re-evaluate that later, too.

Overall, this was a great day in plein air! I can feel the process becoming easier as I tackle more difficult tasks. This experience really slammed home the idea that one must truly OBSERVE and look again before diving into the obvious.

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?

Another Shake Down

“Vessels”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
This painting is the result of taking a few simple ideas and pushing them to shake down any problems and to see what comes out.

Beginning with an under-painting of orange, quinacridone gold and blue, I set about drawing image over image over image over image . . . .much like I had done in the previous two posts . . . . .on top of the painting of the abstract color arrangement. I chose to have the colors dominantly warm with cool accents.

Also, from each position of drawing the image, I changed the height of my point of view, from looking up at the still life set up, to looking straight at it, to looking down upon it. Then, just for giggles, I put a piece of reflective silver mylar partially under and behind the set up which added some repeated shapes in the form of wobbly reflections. Once the line drawing was finished, I left the still life model in another room where I could not see it. My interests were to create shapes by the interweaving and overlapping line drawings and to utilize the warm / cool underpainting as light variations in the painting. By randomly glazing over parts of the painting and implying light from the far left, I wanted to see what sort of design would emerge. Eventually, this design began to take on its own personality. The pitcher appeared in places and merged with the Madonna figure in others. The Madonna figure formed much of the repetition and rhythms in the piece.

I was very cautious (over three days) with this piece not to push the value contrasts too harshly. I believe the darkest dark is but a medium value. By keeping the values more closely aligned, without using white at all, the characteristic differences in the colors used became the prominent interest in the piece. That is, the colors shift from near perfet neutral to slightly increasing intensities, which gives some areas of the painting a feeling of luminosity. That luminous characteristic seems to add a spiritual mood to this painting along with some ambiguity and mystery.

Precious Ambiguity

The Set Up


The Drawing . . .andWork In Progress

The Painting . . .
“Precious Ambiguity”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

As a person with an analytical mind and a nature for curiosity and understanding through logical process and detail, I have had to build the right side of my brain. That process hasn’t been easy. My nature is to crisply copy what is in front of me. And doing otherwise has been more than difficult.

Merging shapes, distorting ideas and color for the sake of making something a bit ambiguous is a process which must be learned. That goes for losing edges, creating color harmonies, assigning values . . . .all stuff which is outside of “reality.” For the person of logical mind, these things can be daunting to learn. But, if making art is the goal . . .and fine art at that . . . . .then they MUST be learned.

Someone once said, “Irritatingly precise – Charmingly incorrect.” I think that says a lot about making art that is magically attractive. Those four words hold much wisdom, I think.

The above process shows how a piece is developed to deliberately create ambiguity and hold a viewer’s attention. It is a terrific way to create ‘shapes’ that would otherwise not be possible via sudden epiphany. In this process (also see last post) the overlapping of multiple line drawings makes for serendipity discovery. And, believe me, it is confusing, but truly fun!

Working Mulitples

“Rotating Still”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches
This vase has been in my family since 50 years. And the lil rascal has been taunting me to paint her in an extraordinary way. You have probably seen a few versions . . . .the last post not withstanding.

An artist friend told me how he taught eighth grade kids about cubism. He put a still life set up in the middle of a square table, asked the kids to sit on one side, and draw the subject in a five minute time limit. Then, they would move to another side for five minutes . . .and so on until they completed superimposing drawing over drawing over drawing on four sides of the table. Then he sent the kids home to “fill in the spaces.”

The vase and the little pottery piece have been begging. So, today, after a dozen different drawings, I decided on doing the above exercise . . .in four non similar view points . . .sitting at different angles and slightly different heights to draw the still life (vase and jug) sitting in front of a large brass lamp four different versions superimposed one over the other.

At first the lines are confusing . . .and after a spell, it becomes exciting to play with different, nonsensical combinations . . .filling in spaces, varying colors, putting the wrong things in different places . . .building a combined composition that is pleasing.

I had a blast! I could hardly put the brush down today. It was sooo much fun!!

Digging in For Better

“Big Boy”
Watercolor, 15 x 22 inches
Well, here is this morning’s effort. Yes, I have accomplished the need to create a greater feeling of enormity by setting up scale comparisons with the background suggestions, the palms and the little cars. It is much more difficult to suggest rather than delineate (at least for me). The urge to describe something like the little cars more fully is something I must constantly resist. After all, when seeing a car from the distance show in this painting, they would be nothing more than a mere shape. (Gotta give up what we think we know, right?)

As for the lighting . . .I sorta got it, but feel that I could have been less timid. I wanted a yellow / orange sky, but for the life of me, I couldn’t get the superstructure of the ship to read as white when I put the shadow. The actual image in the photo reveals that structure to be quite dark against a light sky. That’s no problem, but the colors proved difficult . . .so I resorted to warm light / cool shadows with warm reflected light in the shadows . . .what I know from landscape painting. I guess I have to dig some more. . . . this is the last of this ship for now. I have to work on my “Miroir d Eau” painting. I am planning to use that as a demo in some upcoming workshops. Wish me luck!

Back to The Drawing Board . . .Literally

This morning I couldn’t get to the studio quickly enough. Yesterday’s painting had so many things WRONG that I was chomping the bit to make some sense of this subject.

When I thought about it, I had to ask WHY was I painting this subject . . .(the big ship) ? It was the immensity of it that grabbed me, then the light and how that golden morning set colors into a different world. It sure as heck is NOT about the details or correctness of the ship.

So, back to the sketch book! . . . . and to play with some color ideas. The reason for the color investigations is that the superstructure of the bridge of the ship is white . . .but against the sky in that light it was actually quite dark. So, how do I put that rascal in the painting, make it dark, and still get it to read as white? Now there is a question for you!

To get this painting on the right track, for once I actually have had to resort to perspective and vanishing points. I need to exaggerate the perspective to make the blocky nature of the bridge of the ship more interesting. It’s a shape thing !

Then I MUST put scale to work. So, I have decided that rather than having a path in a park like I had yesterday, I should put in a road with cars travelling on it . . . .and the comparison of those . . .and a few palms . . .will send a clear message of enormity.

It has taken me several sketches to come to these conclusions. I can feel it now. I am getting closer. Now that I have this in mind, I must decide on technique to fit the mood. I still have more decisions to make and challenges to resolve. Does this EVER get easy???

Manipulation of Technique, Design


Three Different Moods
watercolor all are 15 x 22 inches
I am still working on the “Miroir d’ Eau” painting of people on a grand reflecting surface (Last few posts). Progress is slow, but it is mostly about practice.

Meanwhile . . . my classes have begun and I am in that space of dreaming up different ways to show painters ‘how to’ and to help them capture new paths of thought in their work.

I am spending more time emphasizing the interrelationships of Content (subject), Technique and Design and how those relationships affect the mood outcome of a painting. Of course, I have been demonstrating different techniques to some of the classes . . . .recently, painting into wet or damp paper . . .to achieve different edges and textures of the paint. That technique, with variation, and the manipulation of value arrangements, color and edges can express many different moods.

In the paintings above, the drawing has not changed (except just a little bit, unintentionally), but dominances of intensity, hue and temperature have definitely changed. See how the emphasis has shifted from the top of the painting to the bottom? See how the process of moving from painting ‘things’ to constructing an overall atmosphere can completely shift an idea? See how limiting contrasts can affect the mood? And how the increase of contrast can move the mood, too?

Isn’t it interesting how such different feelings can be generated without changing the actual drawing?

Practice Matters

practice sheet
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches
I have a friend in Myrna Wacknov. She is a fellow watercolor painter, teacher and a likeness of me in her art habits. So What, you ask? She practices a lot.

Check her blog out and look back at the incredible amount of practice and challenge she puts to herself. Her recent article about the value of value studies talks about her struggles with them, but it reveals an aspect of her character: that she is determined to conquer the most basic elements and decisions prior to making a painting. Do you suppose that is why she has so many successes over and over again?

Looking at the last few posts here, you know I am working on this one idea of a lot of figures in a single scene.

So, the mood must be set properly. The lighting (values) and the figure movement and placement must be right. That is a sure set up for becoming neurotic and tight in the painting process. This image needs to be loose and free to go along with the mood of the piece.

I am lousy at painting figures, (but getting better every time I do it). I need to be better at the gesture with a brush in making the figure. I need to practice until it is second nature.

No pouting allowed, Mike. Practice it until you get good at it. Just like throwing a ball. No good at first, but the skill can be developed. I am only interested in using a big brush and laying down a simple few marks to indicate a moving figure. No details.

This could take WEEKS !! Really! Yes, it IS that important to me. Practice matters.

This piece of practice was a 45 minute exercise with 3 sizes of figures, using three different sized brushes: a ¾ inch flat, a one inch flat and a 1 ½ inch flat. All for the want of simple, direct moves . . . .flicks and twists of the brush to indicate human movement and mood.

I often remember my learning process in the skill of handwriting as a child. You probably remember, too, how much practice it took to become nearly unconscious as you make the letters now. Practice matters.