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 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.

In Consideration of Shape

“Blushing Bluff”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
Mention SHAPE to five different artists and they will all tell you what they think it means. Usually, the answers will have to do with the subject . . … The “shape” of the pitcher in the still life. . . . The “shape” of the face of the model . . . .the “shape” of the cloud in the sky, etc. There might be five different answers, but they will usually relate to a subject.

We become so lost in the delineation of getting a ‘shape’ correct . . . or deeply engaged in spending our efforts trying to ‘explain’ a subject. In doing so, we lose track of the most important shape in the painting and how it relates to the other ‘shapes.’ That most important shape is the shape of the canvas or paper. Huh???

Yes, we are drawn into a painting by the relationship of the shapes within the painting and the surrounding rectangle. The comparison of size of the painted shapes and the frame of the surface is a huge design consideration. Where the edges of a painted or drawn shape stop or start in comparison to the rectangle is also an element of attraction. For example, in the case of this painting, the edge of the cliff and that tree approximately hit the edge of a square inside of the rectangle, which is remindful of the golden mean. That ratio seems to be highly magnetic to us humans.

Moreover, one needs to look at the overall shapes of the three different groups of value (lights, mediums and darks) within a painting to see how they compare to each other (hopefully, they are of unequal proportion) and how they also relate to that same rectangle of the outer edges. The character of the shapes is also something often overlooked. Are the shapes generally organic in nature, or geometric . . . .curved or linear? It all has to add up.

Some artists sense this stuff and never consider it cerebrally, but they definitely feel it when it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ There are those of us who sense that something is at work that sets us to feeling something good or not so good about a this stuff, but can’t isolate just what it is that makes us feel one way or the other. So, it pays to understand the design relationships and their dynamics so we don’t fumble around so much.

I will be presenting information such as this at a workshop for the California Watercolor Association in Concord, California this coming week. Let’s hope there will be time and inclination to post once or twice during the workshop. ‘Till then . . . .

Blow Hard

“Blow Hard”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
This location here on the west coast is but a teensy little spot which has massive interest to me. I cannot count the number of paintings which have come from this location (Davenport, CA). Every view imaginable has been put to canvas or paper . . .and more images await the brush.
This clump of trees sits at the very edge of a sheer cliff into the rough surf below . . . .probably 100 feet or more! (30 meters). The cliff face is absolutely vertical and these trees and their roots are holding the cliff from eroding into the sea. The cluster of trees juts out into space as the wind beats at them daily. Thus, the name, “blow hard.” Their shape and their trunks and branches tell much about their struggle to remain in that place. The salt, the fog, the wind, the cold . . .it all contributes to stealing their healthy appearance and at the same time giving them strength.
I have been working on developing a new workshop for the last few months and travelling, too. The mental focus to compose the lessons, examples and order of this workshop was weighing on me. So, yesterday, I took the day to play at the easel. This was the result. I had fun and am now ready to refocus and finish my tasks to compile this workshop.


“Cottonwood Homestead
posted in July

“Cottonwood Homestead” Improved
oil on cavas, 16″ x 20″

Have you ever done a painting, accepted it as done and went back a few weeks later to see it had **changed** ?

What are these mysterious gremlins at work on our paintings? Somehow, they manage to modify shapes, change the colors, put strokes in the paintings that I KNOW I never did. How does this happen.

Maybe I should pose these questions another way. Why was I so bloody blind when I was painting it? That is the real question!!

I have several paintings leaning against my easel which MUST be revised. I can see now what I could not see when I was painting them. It must be the incubation process. That is to say, like hens eggs, they must incubate quietly under warm conditions, then they hatch. Paintings have a similar character. We don’t really get to see them in the state they will be living until they have “incubated.” . . . . . .Or, been out of our vision for a period of time. . . . . How Long? . . . . . . . . Maybe as long as a year or more. Most times, though, it is usually a few weeks. Then I see the errors in color, shape, value, texture and direction. You can see in this painting of the poplars that it was rather blah. The sky was too yellow, the trees washed out, there wasn’t enough contrast of value, the color of the trees was wrong and they were leaning to the left. The more I looked at the painting, the more I itched to fix it.

So, here are the results, such as they are. I am much happier with the piece, but my mind’s vision is still a distance away from the outcome (that never changes, incidentally). As artists who are constantly looking for improvement in our work, I think our minds grow much faster than we realize. Perhaps that is why we can see the faults in our work in a matter of a few weeks.

Personally, I am very thankful for the constant change in my mental perspective. Incubation affords me to see the errors of my skills then consciously make improvements. How else does an artist grow?

The Power of Practice

“Golden Morning”
oil on canvas panel, 16″ x 12″
This scene, one I worked on over and over while in France, is out of the images left in my mind.

Yes. It was composed and painted completely from my thoughts about what it should look like. First, the pencil sketches came while mulling over my morning coffee without visual reference to any of the previous attempts done on site. Then there were the considerations that came with the sketches. Those considerations would never have come had I not painted similar scenes in plein aire while there. Here are some of my thoughts about composing this.

· The hay rolls must provide direction for the eye to track into the composition and not become a subject in themselves.
· Color !! Is GREEN the only color to work with?! Too much green is simply too obvious!
· Color again! Why not use colors that wouldn’t otherwise be seen? Pump it up and see what happens. Look for impact and entertainment versus realism.
· Those poplar trees! They speak to me. Feature them, not the sunflowers below.
· As for the sunflowers, just make them one shape with minor color variation.
· Put the color accents on the poplars and repeat those colors in the foreground for unity.
· Texture in the foreground to indicate grasses, but without stating “grass” explicitly. Imply!
· Use the successful parts of previous paintings.

When I stand in a field and paint a subject such as this, my attention is focused on what is there and how the light is working. That focus makes memory connections that no photograph can make. That is why so many photos go unused after coming home. There just is no concentrated, laser observation at work.

Then there is the added benefits of painting the same subject from different perspectives or points of view . . . .which make for different compositions. The more I do it, the more there is to recall . . . .and the more clarity I find in my purpose. I suppose that practice does that. It helps eliminate the superfluous and aids in refining that which impresses me. In this case, those beautifully shaped poplar trees . . . .and, of course, the light.

In the studio, all this stuff comes into play and falls easily into place.

Practice does that. It makes every attempt clearer, more certain and easier to execute. Some artists call it working in series. It is very, very powerful!

More Leaking Watercolor

“Crimson Sentries”
Watercolor, 15″ x 18″
This design challenge of the steep cliffs along the edge of the Pacific Ocean near my home has been nagging me since I first began painting 20 years ago.

As you can see from the last few posts, the cliffs came into play again with a series of sketches and some oil paintings that threw an entirely different bias into the paintings. That bias was one of using a highly limited palette and avoiding the reality of the color on the site. The last post spoke about how my watercolor technique sometimes leaks into the oil painting process.

The tree shape in the composition is really the center of interest as driven by the value contrast . . . .and the unusual color of a deep crimson base (rather than dark green). It was this palette choice that pushed me to wonder if I could (or should) attempt something similar in watercolor. When painting those trees in oil, the darkest coolest version of that red is laid down thinly first, then the progressively lighter values and warmer tones laid over each other until the sense of a lit solid volume becomes apparent. In watercolor, however, it is exactly the opposite . . .painting first the light then working backward to the darks. Watercolor is (to me) dazzlingly beautiful when it is wet, especially those rich darks! I find myself getting carried away by them and often go too far and put too much dark into the composition. Then, the painting has to be rescued.

This painting, similar to the last few compositionally, was the test to see if I could do something similar with watercolor. The trees came out okay, but they don’t have the density of pigment that the oils have. ( I am not dissatisfied, just pointing out a difference). The foreground in this watercolor is a good deal less forgiving, however, than the oils. With the oils, the strokes themselves indicate what the textures and abstract indications of the foliage might look like. In watercolor, that doesn’t happen. Those textures and patterns have to be created . . .. . again working from light to dark. . . . . .and, for me, that is no easy task. Because the foreground shape is such a large shape, something had to be done to keep the internals of that shape entertaining yet supportive of the rest of the piece without attracting too much attention. The colors had to harmonize with the rest of the piece, yet be subordinate to all else, too.

As a result, this piece took quite a while longer to paint than a typical alla prima oil painting like the last few. Each layer had to wait for the last layer to reach bone dry before proceeding. And those layers were sandwiched in between other goings on in life . . . .but that’s another story.

Putting It Into Practice

“Cottonwood Homestead”
oil on canvas, 16″ x 20″
Putting all that study time into practice helps. But, if you are like me, your brain goes flacid the moment a brush is in your hand.
I dunno what it is, but this guy’s left brain ceases to communicate with the right brain once the painting act begins.
There are so many decisions to consider when the painting begins . . . .light over dark . . .no greens . . . .warm dominance . . . . .what will I do with that corner over there? . . . .and what about that building that is perfectly behind one tree so that its roof peak coincides with the tree trunk . . .gotta move it . . .and more and more and more.
This piece was to be a practice piece. I have more to go, obviously, but I really did learn something about layering progressively warmer and lighter schlobs over the thin darks this time. I had a blast with it. Enjoy!