In My Face . . .

“Confetti and Spears”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

After posting a non objective piece last week, I immediately ran to the easel to do another. Sketches were already done and I was psyched to hit a home run! I have worked on this piece daily for over a week, putting in three to four hours per day.

It wasn’t until I photographed the piece and brought it up on the computer screen that I saw some glaring errors . . . .and I don’t mean smudges or brush sloppiness. I mean design errors that shocked me. This piece has been in my face for over a week and I never saw the errors until now.
We artists can become so driven and focused on something that we completely miss that which is right in front of us . . . at least I sure do!
I am a bit of a fanatic about composition and design, yet make the same mistakes over and over again. For example, the large light shapes which float through the composition in this painting are, I suddenly realized, centered in the page. That is, the intervals or distances between the bottom of the shapes and the bottom edge of the page are the same intervals as the distances from the tops of the shapes to the top edge of the page. Darn!! Why didn’t I see that?
Then, when laying in the spears and lines I was careful not to make any parallel to each other . . . . . . . . .Or, was I cautious enough? Apparently NOT!! Yikes! How could I have missed that?
I must admit that I spent much time and effort trying to avoid color errors and wasn’t looking carefully at spatial relationships in the piece. I had set a challenge to work up a painting in a red analogous color scheme. I love the colors and textures and much of the movement through the piece. That said and noting the errors made (there are ALWAYS mistakes!) this is a passable painting.
I have a friend who is a Dolphin Fellow in AWS (an extremely high honor which recognizes artistic excellence) who says we have to do 10 or 20 in order to get “a good one.” He does . . .and so to I.
So, like they used to say in the barber shop: “NEXT!”

Practicing What I Preach

” Parked In The Sun”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
I have been lamenting for several weeks (months) that I have not been able to paint.
You might recognize the following if you have not been painting . . . . . .doubts and fears set in about whether I am reallty capable to do this . . . .was I just bee essing the world? . . . .was that last good painting an accident that I will never be able to repeat? . . . . .Have I lost the touch? . . . . . . .and more and more and more! All this pours through our consciousness as daily tasks take us from the easel. Soon, the doubts are so strong that we become nearly paralyzed. Not only that I ‘don’t‘ paint, but it becomes I ‘can’t‘ paint!
For an artist who gets grouchy and irritable when I don’t paint, the very sanity and comfort of those around me is at risk when long stretches between painting happen. It isn’t pretty. 😉
I have always preached to my classes to Just Paint ! Just go make a mess. Don’t worry about what, just make anything. . . . .but fer gooness sake, PAINT!

After a long, long break, something in me snapped. I rose from the bed yesterday absolutely committed to go make colored puddles on paper . . . . .to sling paint and just get used to the feel of it . . . .go ruin some paper, Mike! . . . .just practice what you preach! Forget all the mind chatter and get out there to move some pigment around.

So, I did. It isn’t up to the normal quality that I expect of myself, but that was not the goal. What a great feeling to throw something down with no expectations . . .just try something.

I have much to do in order to gain back my ‘touch.’ But. after yesterday, I am sure I can ‘come back.’

It’s good to be ‘home.’

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

“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)

Watercolor En Plein Air

“Three Graces”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

For many years I painted watercolors outdoors with friends. Some worked and some didn’t. There was, however, a certain energy about the paintings that made them very recognizable from studio work.

Perhaps that energy is a result of the difficulty of painting with watercolor outside. I consider myself confident in executing an outdoor piece, but I must say that in spite of my confidence and speed of delivery, there is just something that keeps me in the studio. Plein air painting is a giant pain in the rear, if you know what I mean.

While I have worked out the kinks and the difficult processes of setting up and operating in a ‘studio’ outside, in the wind and blinding light, it is still a love / hate relationship for me.

While in Yosemite, I made, at least, one plein air piece per day . . . .and usually did a studio piece each day, as well. This piece, of the ‘three graces’ (I think that is the name) was one of those incredible days where every wash behaved, every color did what it was supposed to do and the wind only come along at the finish. Out in this meadow, near the base of El Capitan, the light sparkled on the edges of this giant set of rocks, while in the crevices the light hid in mysterious darks. The light coming through the yellowed trees at the base of the rockwalls were luminous. It was a blast to paint! But inside all of the processes, more lessons came forth which reminded me what I should be doing in the studio.

One of those lessons was to paint vertically if I want great washes. Having gravity naturally pull the pigment laden water down the page reveals granulations and effects one can never cause on a piece of paper, no matter how expert the painter might be. So, I am doing exactly that. I had forgotten how important it is and allowed the comfort of control to take over. Invariably, the discomfort of a painting getting ‘out of hand’ is when the great stuff shows up.

On to the next one! Let the paint flow downward.

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.

Square Deal

“Elkkhorn Backwater”
oil on stretched canvas, 12 x 12 inches
Having never painted on a square format before now, I have always shied from it because there was no dominant direction in the format. That is, neither dominantly horizontal nor vertical. Considering the golden mean, there is no way to express it in the square, at least, as far as I am aware. So, it is very important, in my opinion, to place dynamic, unsymmetrical, ‘moving’ shapes inside the square to excite the viewer. Otherwise symmetry leads to boredom.
The long, leading linear light valued shape on the water’s edge leads the eye deep into the square in an oblique direction, thus giving the internals of the square some tension and movement. The end of that shape, or line, the viewer is immediately attracted to the orange shapes lying out in the distance. Much is going on in this seemingly quiet, static square.
On the way to another painting site a few weeks ago, we stopped at this location to photograph the beutiful contrasts of the hills, the swarming green succulent, the orange fungus ( I think it is a fungus), and the water / reflections. Having just finished painting for the day, we only had time to photograph and go.
Working from my computer monitor in my studio, I was able to take a few days developing this painting . . . .glazing, reshaping, refining, recoloring . . .what ever was needed to refine this to the art piece that it is. I enjoyed it and like the result!
Meanwhile, I am painting the interior of our home and removing old “popcorn” ceilings. the labor is abusive, that is for sure. What’s more, the abuse doubles because I am away from my beloved easel. Some deal!!

Walnut Tunnel

“Walnut Ave. Dappling”
oil on stretched canvas, 20 x 30 inches
SOLD
After three plein air sessions at Walnut Ave, it was time to do a large piece . . . .wellll . . . . . . . .let’s just say larger. By comparison, this piece is huge. But not as huge as a five footer.

This was another test for me . . . . A test to remain spontaneous and loose. My tendency is to get tight with my work, but I adore the looseness of both oil and watercolor as it enlists the viewer to employ the imagination.

The textures of the trees, the warm to cool transition, as the viewer goes down the ‘tunnel’ and all the color and edge variations in the shadows are the three things I had really concentrate on the entire time I was painting. It may seem silly, but I needed to take an athletic stance in front of the canvas and hold that long brush all the way at the end of the wooden handle. This painting was painted from my ankles up . . . .moving my entire body to lay in the strokes, sometimes. By the end of a six hour session, I was exhausted physically . . . . .but pleased with the outcome.

A few days later, what needed work was quite apparent. I attacked those areas with the same mental attitude of *suggesting* and *Implying* rather than explicit explanation.

After this painting was finished, I began to think I might be catching on to oil painting.

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.)

Still Life #83

“Still Life #83”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches
Life offers few surprises, if one lets it become boring. The same is true in art. One can let the same subject become boring . . .or not. I have been working on this series of still life paintings off and on for two to three years. And it wasn’t because I loved still life paintings. It was for a challenge and to learn something about what my creative muscles could do when confronted with the same subject to be painted in a long series. I have been surprised by what I have learned about design, what is art and what lies inside of me. Certainly not boring.

This is the 83rd pass at it. I never dreamed it would come this far . . . .nor that I would be painting it in front of 220 artists. But here it is. I painted it last Monday evening at the Kanuga Watercolor Workshops in Hendersonville, North Carolina. I completed most all of the painting, with a few errors, in about 40 minutes and introduced the audience to this series process and what benefits and surprises it has brought into my studio. One and a half days later . . .and quite a bit of thought . . .I finished the piece.

This project was what I have been working on so much these last weeks . . .and the reason for being so quiet here. This project was exactly the reason for my last post . . .the Rainbow Connection . . . .

To be introduced to such an august group of painters from all over the east coast . . . .and some of the finest painters in the world today . . . . .was a very high honor. If you were there, you know it was both humbling and exciting. This ‘confab’ of artists and the workshops were the finest I have ever seen and it was run with an expert hand . . .first class all the way . . . .if ever you thought you would like to learn from the best, rub elbows with the most committed and expert painters or just go to such an event for the adventure, this annual workshop is a must. Check it out at this link.