Pushing It

“Plane Dealing”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches
Painting is much, much more than making ‘pretty pictures.’   Painting is way more than making smudges of color with paint.   In fact, painting has been called ‘an Art’ for centuries because so few people ever muster enough skill to be able to deliver masterly paintings without breaking a sweat (or, it seems so!).
Two years ago, I began a series of abstract paintings using flat planes as the ‘subject.’   I cannot express the breadth of knowledge I have gained by doing so.   What I discovered several years back was that no matter the subject, the painter must deliver a strong composition in order to attract and hold a viewer’s attention.   It must go well beyond the “Oh!  I recognize that _______(thing, place, person)”   It must have that mysterious arrangement that draws the viewer into its woven web of shapes, colors, textures etc. and fascinates them.    
This task becomes increasingly more difficult the larger the piece becomes.   Why?   Because those spaces in the picture plane, where there doesn’t seem to be much happening, must be entertaining while they support the main attraction of the painting.   Those seemingly non consequential areas must be attractive in their own right, but must not steal attention from what the artist is trying to say.   To see what I mean, click on the image and look at the corners of the painting.   There you will witness variation in color and texture.   You will also see subtle shifts of value so that the lighter values appear to be emerging from those corners . . . . not pasted on them.
Gradually, as I worked this piece, layer over layer over layer, the character of the painting shifted back and forth until it reached a point where it became difficult to decide what to do next and to have every part of the painting feel as part of a family of wildly different elements.  That sounds like a mouth full.   There has to be relatedness, contrast, harmony, and, above all, unity.   That is everything must seem as though it belongs in the painting.
To make such a complex painting, such as the one above, the painter must come to a place where every mark is made with near abandon and courage to push ahead.   The painter who worries about ruining a work before it is complete is the painter who will never achieve the extraordinary.   In other words, If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t reaching far enough.
No person who cares about the quality of their work wants to endure the disappointment of clobbering a painting into the waste bin.   That same person, though, must be willing to slow waaaay down and creep slowly toward the conclusion while carefully assessing every stroke and mark and how it will relate with the rest of the painting.   Obviously, the artist is flirting with disaster, or pushing his or her luck, in that process.   What did the artist have to lose if failure reared its head?   Truthfully, only that he or she would have grown a few days or weeks older . . . . . .which would have happened even if he or she wasn’t in the act of making art.  
Are you pushing it?

Courting Failure and Thinking

Watercolor 22 x 30 inches
The terror of failure often accompanies painters as they make their way through their paintings. The sheer idea that failure may appear and inform the world that we are incompetent scares the liver out of many, many painters.
I happen to believe that in order to go beyond what is accepted as ‘good’ or “just like a photograph” one must come to terms with failing and allow it to accompany every attempt at making art. The reason I believe that is that I know that plain vanilla just doesn’t attract much attention. And, in order to do something truly extraordinary, one must risk failing . . . the extraordinary is, obviously, difficult. Otherwise it wouldn’t BE extraordinary.
To make non objective paintings, the artist has no crutch on which to lean, such as a model or scene from which to reference. The artist is out on the end of the gang plank, so to speak. Every element, Line, Size, Shape, Direction, Color, Value and Texture, come into play . . . . . and every element must be considered in how it affects every other part of the painting. Then, composition also raises its head and demands to be not only recognized, but designed. There is much conjecture by lay persons that “my kindergartener could do that,” or “a monkey could,” etc. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Non objective painting doesn’t happen by accident or by throwing paint at it and hoping that the painting will come out okay.
Painting non objective work entails deep thought and lots of evaluating alternatives for each of the elements mentioned above. The outcome is something the artist tries hard to reach and is most often disappointed . . . . “It didn’t come out like what I had in mind.” It never does . . . .but as we grow, we get closer.
So, when I want a mental challenge, painting a piece like the one above is what I attempt. And a challenge it is!!! In fact, the process is total mental immersion.
Did this one work? Heck, I don’t know yet. But the fun is in the doing.


watercolor 15 x 22 inches

If you are wondering if I have again become inactive, the answer is an emphatic no. I just returned from driving 500 miles, one way, to San Diego, to jury a show for the San Diego Watercolor Society. It is an interim show with an experimental theme. It was a rushed trip, but well worth the time spent. I listened to two books on tape while driving, met some of the SDWS officials, saw some extraordinary paintings and learned a few more life lessons in the process. And, Oh yes, I did paint the morning I left to drive there.

I think there are five pieces left from my binge that I haven’t posted, yet. Here is one of them. . . .
This series is really excellent for illustrating the effect of large shapes and how powerfully they hold a painting together. In the end, this series is much of the same stuff, same color schemes, and similar designs . . . .actually a similar formula, but just modifying the rock shapes and positions in the picture space. In other words, it is all abstraction.
There’s more. Stay tuned.

Oh Cee Dee !

“The Bucket Crane”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

“Leaning Out”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

“Two Hardhats”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

Yes, OCD! Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I think I have it. Maybe not full tilt, but I certainly act it, now and then. I wonder if it is something I eat. . . . .

I have been ruminating for a few months on how to simplify my linemen paintings and take them into another dimension. That isn’t the part that is OCD. I finally decided, after a brief visit with Christopher Schink, that I would resort to playing with big flat shapes, with very little detail. All one needs do, is look at Schink’s masterworks and one would immediately understand my choice to begin there. I certainly don’t wish to copy his approach,(as if anyone could!). (Obviously a master, he is, eh?!). Instead, just focusing on big flat shapes will lead me to value and color approaches as well as texture and line.
These linemen are super subjects to play with because of the shapes they can generate when connected to their work and / or equipment. As you saw a few days ago, Dear Reader, I sketched 19 of the rascals and came up with some interesting abstractions of value and shape. I developed more sketches . . .near 40 now . . . . . . so, it is time to see where I can go with paint. Working this subject in series is bound to shake out some new, appealing ideas.
The OCD part comes in during my dreams! . . . . . not wanting to do anything except paint! I find 3AM seems to be my wake up time when in this OCD mode . . . .and definitely NOT on purpose! I just can’t stop thinking about this stuff. So, it awakens me . . .even when sick or exhausted. So, I get out of bed and go to the studio to try some of my ideas and experiments.
Here are a few trial paintings. Mind you, these are just trials. When taking a 3 x 4 inch sketch up to 22 x 30 inch painting, spaces can look very empty and boring if not paid their due attention. These trials are to get a feel for the ideas in paint (usually on the back of some old, failed painting) then make some key decisions about design, then develop the paintings seriously. I have to shake the Schink influence and stick to my own vision . . . .and that, it seems is the cause of my OCD. I can’t leave these thoughts alone!
More later . . . . . .obviously!! 😉

Making Value Studies

I just returned from giving a workshop in Sonoma County in California. It was one of those great ones! Intense. Everyone pitching in and enthused to learn. Everyone doing the exercises.

My workshops are all about building a solid foundation of design. We don’t paint pretty pictures just like the instructor. The lessons and exercises are powerful, insightful and full of challenge.
In coaching everyone and thinking about what I might do with my next paintings, I began to develop a craving to be at my easel. Ideas were sprinting through my mind!
If you have followed this blog, you may recall that last November I was working on Linemen as a subject. I felt these held a lot of promise for developing a unique and interesting series.
Exhausted from the workshop and spinning all sorts of images in my mind last night, I awoke at 3AM and could not sleep for all the ideas that were presenting themselves . . .and I was coming down with a nasty cold. So, I got up, grabbed my sketch book and a cup of hot coffee and went to work on the ideas.
I am looking to make these figures flat and to include some judicious use of line to enhance the image. Also, I have ideas for color schemes which may add some interesting mood. But first, I must work out the value abstractions. That is what these sketches are about: Isolating shapes of light arbitrarily, revising shapes, considering the ratio of Lights, Darks and Mediums. Additionally, trying to make some interesting shapes which will spice up the composition. In other words, making as many alternatives as I could dream up.
On one set of sketches I included two helmets to make a unique shape of white. In another set, I kept but one helmet shape and concentrated on shape and value within the single figure. Click on the pages if you want a closer look at the minor changes I made.
Surely there are more alternatives, but this will be a good start to get to the easel and try a few of them. I can imagine that I could be painting for the next several months (or years!) on this series, since it offers so much potential.

Haste, Balance and Adjustments

“Hobby Horse Dreams”
Watercolor 18 x 24 inches

Today, just as I am readying to depart to an NWS board of directors meeting, I kept noticing that I had a problem with my last painting.

This time of year is always difficult for me because it is a time of hurrying to complete many things in short time allotments. Open Studio at my home will be held October 9,10 and 16,17. The haste to accomplish all the framing and preparations to make that event happen without hitches is always a challenge.
As usual, I framed pieces I have painted in the last year. This piece, which you saw in the last post, was standing in its frame in our living room . . . . . .and while it stood there, it was as if a big hook and yelling voice was attempting to catch me. The piece was out of balance!
See the last post and observe the left 1/4 of the painting. That area was morose, dark and the only area like it in the painting. That area seemed as though it did not belong with the rest of the painting (striving for unity!). Also, the white shape seemed to be too far biased to the right . . .that is most of the weight of the shape was on the right. Something needed to happen to this piece! Something subtle yet effective enough to upset the current unbalanced nature of the piece.
I had to remove it from the frame, mat, glass etc. Then it had to go back to the easel for adjustments and some needed new elements of line. You can see the vertical / oblique wavy lines were added . . .but no change in balance. The Blue ‘dart’ was added to help direct the eye, but the piece was still out of balance. ( I wasn’t just guessing. I knew what had to happen: the left quarter needed a hint of white to pull the eye back toward the left and to compensate for the right biased weight of the big white shape.) The lines and dart were needed elements for interest.
Darn! Wasted time! Not really.
Having learned the hard way too many times, it seems to me that a good painter never rushes to conclusions in finalizing any painting . . . pending shows or whatever the reason. I have, several times, framed paintings and put them in a show only to be embarassed by what I completely missed seeing. Good paintings need time to be digested and reconsidered. More often than not, after a few weeks of resting, a painting will reveal its inner workings and problems as the painter relaxes from the angst of the act of painting. I believe this to be part of the natural order of making art. You just cannot rush it. Many students find they cannot paint well in workshops. This is part of the reason. Good composition requires reflection, observation and thought. . . . . . and not just for a few minutes. Those tiny adjustments can often make or break a painting. And they may not reveal themselves for long periods. It is a matter of being patient and letting the mind dwell quietly on the composition. The painting process is not always won by the swift, but to those who remain in the struggle to compose carefully.
Moral: Put your pieces up in a corner where you can see them for an extended period before the “Finished” declaration is made.

On Composing

Preliminary Sketches
Composition Idea
Figuring the Large Shapes

The demo in my last post came out well. In my humble artistic opinion, it had less to do with the act of painting and a heckuvalot more to do with the initial planning and composing.

I won’t say that “anyone can copy what they see” because that is simply not true. But seeing is not always the best means of making something extraordinary out of a bunch of ‘things.’ Namely, trees, cliffs, colored succulent, rocks etc. It is much more a task of arrangement of shapes, shapes, values, colors, textures etc. It is in the arranging or composing those elements together that wonderful things happen.

It begins in the early sketches and assessing those sketches for design flaws, then, re-doing the sketches to account for the flaws, re-assessing and making still more changes. In that assessment process, I find that I must remove my thoughts from the subject and move to considering how the various shapes combine to form three to five large shapes and how those large shapes interrelate with the rectangle of the canvas or paper on which the painting is made.

That recent demo (last post) went through this very process. Once I was happy with the large shapes which connected the edges of my rectangle, I could insert and fit the ‘reality’ of the subject into it. It took some cramming, shortening, shrinking, expanding, squeezing, eliminating, adding . . . .well . . . .you get the idea . . . .the subject had to fit into the composed arrangement of large light and dark shapes. Looking at the sketch above, it boils down to an abstraction that is interesting to look at in its own right.

For you painters who are less experienced, the large dark shape that sprawls across this page is actually a combination of many items . . .trees, grasses, succulents, rocks, etc. It is in the act of painting that the artist must use caution and value control to insure that the large dark shape is still expressed through that combination of ‘stuff.’

It may seem like hard work to those who “just want to paint.” But, I believe that the disappointment which most often follows rushing into a painting is a big price to pay. . . . .especially, when we artists put our treasured sweat and tears into the act of painting. It is worth the effort and time to work out the composition first, then set about getting it all on to canvas or paper.