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.

Today’s Demo

“Rocks and Carpets”
Watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
This was the demo today. It is a fairly complex painting with challenges in linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, compostion, value structure, color and texture.
I attempted to show and discuss the thinking process in developing a decent watercolor painting, the preparation and planning to establish a strong composition to a ‘standing room only’ crowd of around 90 to 100 painters. it was exciting and fun!
As most of my readers know from reading this blog, and seeing the paintings posted here, I try very hard to go out to where other watercolorists visit rarely, if ever. This piece was more of a traditional watercolor painted so the audience would relate with the scene, as well as the structure of the piece. I attempted to show how the elements and principles apply in realism, as well as abstract painting.
If you were there, I hope you enjoyed it . . .and I hope you will comment here. All in all it was a fun afternoon, but I have to admit that it took several hours for me to ‘come down.’ I get nervous about these sort of things, even though I paint a lot.
This demo kicked off my ten week course beginning tomorrow, “Watercolor Beyond the Obvious.” More about it later. Thanks to those who came today. You were a terrific audience!

The Ultimate Challenge

“Breakthrough”
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?

Color Play, Too.

“Sentinel Flats”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

I have a goofy, abstract side as well as a side of me that loves the implied realism which emerges when all of the elements and principles of design optimally meet.

That means that for ‘reality’ to emerge contrasts can’t get too far out of hand, shapes must be designed but recognizable, values must have their transitions and appropriate assignments. (by assignments, I mean that the dominant value of a region in the painting must have a dominance which seems to emulate reality.) And, of course, color has it’s place, too. Good color harmonies and gradations make all the difference in a well executed painting.

But!!! . . . . . .there are times when the playful side of me screams to get out. And . . .when that happens, just about anything will show up. In this case, it was more of what I had done earlier in the week at Yosemite. While Sentinel Rock was right out my back door, it’s shape is recognizable from all over the valley floor . . .and above the valley.

With sketchbook in hand in the mornings, I would draw from my previous sketches or paintings and redesign shapes . . .reorient their placement on the page . . .exaggerate or play down some shapes in order to call attention to something special. Set the values so the overall composition worked well, then set about painting it.

I just HAD to Play with color, too! Using a rigger brush with pure Perinone Orange (a brilliant red orange), I lined out all the shapes completely eliminating detail. Focus on shape, value and color. Period. Painting the inner parts of the outlined shapes in opaque gouache, holding down the intensity of the colors until the center of interest, where I played up the saturation, this was the outcome. Yep! It’s different, but definitely Yosemite.

By the way, if shape design is of interest to you, check out Peggy Stermer Cox’s blog (click here). (Check out her “Still Life with A Pony” images. What she does to keep a whisper of reality, yet make shapes leap out of the page is worthy of your time to go look. We could all learn much from her!

Experimenting with the Elements

Line Experiment
watercolor 14 x 21 inches

It has been a while since posting last. To get back into the painting mode I will sometimes take on a familiar subject and ‘let her rip’ by applying the paint in ways that are completely different than my normal painting ‘style.’ In this painting I used wet paper and an oil painting filbert brush to scrub in the paint. This yields wild and brilliant colors but also opened the door to using line in an otherwise different way. In the end, all of the elements (7 of them) are present, but some are emphasized in such a way as to attract attention.

This painting of half dome in Yosemite was more of an experiment than a painting. It may never see a frame or a mat, but it certainly allowed me to ‘get off the leash to run’ and get the crazy urges out of my system. It served another purpose: discovery. While fooling around in a free fashion, I found a few little ideas (like red shadows) and using dense, opaque colored line (integrating gouache into the watercolor pigment) atop the trees. This shifted the focus from the dome to the trees and the white shape behind them. These discoveries of how to exploit the different elements of design can often lead to new approaches in more serious paintings.

Open Studio is finished for 2009. Now I am putting everything away for next year and attempting to get back to living a normal life. Thanks to all who came and a special thanks to all my enthusiastic patrons.

Playing “What If”

“Still Life-98”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

As you already know, I have been working on many different versions of this same still life.

Nothin’ new, you say?

I would beg your indulgence for just a moment. Playing “What If” is no boring pastime. It is the sure path to discovering something new, something unusual . . . . .and certainly the path to finding one’s personal voice in painting. Y’see, when the artist has nothing to lose and it doesn’t matter what others think about a piece, that artist is much more willing to take chances and try things that may not make sense or to take risks when more ‘serious’ approaches would cause risk avoidance.

As this painting was finished today, there was a missing element in the lower right foreground. It was here that the risk was staring back at me and mocking me to go ahead. The pattern of “dotted i’s” on the green vase needed another repetition and that lower corner needed some of that neutralized green to balance things. So, there it is. Could I have spoiled the painting? Yep. Was I taking a risk (can’t erase here with all that surrounding texture)? Yep. Does it make sense or seem ‘real?’ Nope. Did it work? Yep.

I think, frankly, that little silly touch is actually funny. The entire tone of the painting (mood) is sort of tongue in cheek. The entire painting is constructed of “what if” shapes and colors and values. Reality is suggested when it couldn’t possibly be that way. So, the doodling around with an old theme, just messin’ with ideas to see what would happen exposed some new approaches having to do with repeating patterns, gradations, shapes and color intensities. I learned more today!

Isn’t that what this painting business is all about? Growth and learning?

Series Article

Still life 93
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches
You have, no doubt, heard about the idea of ‘working in series.’

There are tons of reasons for it, one of which is to improve on a theme. The least obvious is that through the confinement of doing some single thing over and over again is that the artist’s creative mind is awakened and begins to work overtime. I say that it is liberation through confinement.

In fact, if you’d like to know more about the process of series work and what it can do for you and your art . . . . .or if you are a lay person and want to truly understand what the mystery is inside of an artist’s work process . . . . .pick up a copy of the October issue of “WATERCOLOR ARTIST” magazine.
In that magazine is an article entitled, “Play it Again” authored by yours truly. I hope you find it interesting.
Oh, the painting above is another in the long series of still life experiments. This one was done yesterday. I do these when I yearn to paint but have no specific idea of **what** to paint. This helps me loosen up for paintings to come, exercises my creative muscles, opens thinking channels, allows me to experiment without danger of failure and on and on and on. Thought you might like to see how I ‘doodle’ with my paints.

Self Portrait

“Self Portrait”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
Responding to David Lobenberg’s challenge of making a self portrait, I jumped in with both feet as I have been thinking of taking on portraits as a distraction from my usual fare.

So, I did.

Something about the usual portraits has always troubled me . . . .that is that many artists are so wrapped up in the details of the face, that they miss the value abstraction possibilities and the interest created by non symmetrical shapes. Mind you, I am not speaking of noses, chins, foreheads and that sort of shape. I am speaking of the shapes of the various VALUES of the light. In my book, it is the pattern of light on the face which makes a portrait much more powerful.

But what do I know? I don’t paint portraits. I slapped this one out in about two hours and realized that there is a lot to learn about color in portraiture. Temperature and intensities make huge differences in the painting of facial perspective.

Color Tests

Pyrrol Red Tests
Click on image to see color results
watercolor 22 x 30 inches


Still Life – 92
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
Recently, I gave a workshop to the Sierra Watercolor Society on color. The 20 people who took that workshop had not a single moment of lighthearted play during the 3 days. They worked extremely hard to understand color, color relationships, harmonies and, of course, color mixing. M. Graham of West Linn, Oregon made paints available to the workshop so everyone could see the value of extra fine pigments and how they behave on the palette and all get the same results. A salute to the Grahams, Art and Diana, would be minimizing the value of their contribution to these artists and myself. To see the lights come on and the realizations dawn for these artists is absolute pleasure to witness. As the three days progressed, I could see a fluency develop in every single participant. I wish the Grahams could have seen the outcome!

They sent a few of their new colors for me to try. One was Pyrrol Red. I haven’t the slightest idea what the derivation of that color is, but I certainly squeezed as much from that color as I could in determining how it would behave ‘under fire.’

From what I could tell, (see the above chart) it seemed to reside at or very near the 9 o’clock position on the color wheel, midway between orange-red and quinacridone rose (primary red). As you can see, I tested it’s wheel position and validated it’s relationship with other colors. Compared to Cadmium Red, this color is absolutely transparent and brilliant in intensity. I am VERY tempted to put Cad Red aside as this color mixes so beautifully with others and dries with that same brilliance. I need to assess it a bit further before I give up such a stalwart pigment such as Cad Red . . . . .but I am certainly leaning in that direction.

Following the tests, I made another design in the series of still lifes I have been playing with over the last few years. I used Pyrrol Red throughout the painting to make the sienna tones, the greens, the violets and the darks, as well as the semi-neutral reds (browns). The paint performed marvelously!

All the while the testing was going on in the painting, I was mentally busy exploiting more design possibilities in the painting. After 90 some paintings on the same theme, one would think I would run out of ideas, but they just keep coming . . .though much more slowly. More about that later.