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!”

Thinking Compositionally

“The Big Stick”
watercolor 22 x 22 inches

Compositional Sketches

There are plenty of those who are saying under their breath, “I don’t like these pictures of Linemen.” In other words, they might be thinking that these ‘pictures’ aren’t cute enough or pretty enough to decorate their house. Many painters today subconsciously appraise paintings from that point of view. Those artists are confined to thinking purely about the subject of the painting and how precious it might be in a decorative environment, instead of assessing the painting on the basis of its artistic merit.

That said, I have been wrestling with this subject for a few months and today I broke through to a new level of thinking. I finally was able to separate my compulsive little pea brain from trying to replicate the subject and moved into considering the abstract composition FIRST. What a difference it makes!

Seriously, I do know better. In fact, I teach this in my classes. But it isn’t always easy to make the shift. I might be the teacher, but I am vulnerable to habit just like the next person.

Let me illustrate what I am writing about . . . .refer to the sketches you see above . . . . . . .there is, essentially, two values in each of these sketches. It wasn’t until I reached the bottom sketch that I realized that I should consider the dark values as ONE SHAPE and how it sits in the rectangle or the square! Notice the little teeny sketch to the right of the bottom sketch. Doesn’t that abstract shape appeal to your sense of design? It certainly does mine! It was there that I realized (once again my mind says, Oh! I remember!!) that it isn’t the details but the arrangement of the value shapes and the ratio of their sizes that appeals to our deep abstract aesthetic senses.

Knowing that, I grabbed an old painting, flipped it to the backside, and began drawing in the big dark shape. Once drawn, I could see where some modifications were necessary . . . namely to move from a rectangle to a square format . . .there was an awkward space on the left. Then, the decision to put the horizontals at a slight oblique also added a nice tension to the composition. Also, I recognized that the crossbar on the background pole was not a good angle, so revised that, too, in order to drive the eye to the white helmets.

Once drawn, I pulled the three inch brush from its holster and began sloppily painting intp the dark shape and made sure to slop some color variation into the shape but keep the values the same (that was yesterday). The lights and the darks were set . . . .I left it to dry until today . . . .(and worried a bit about the light shapes of the light on the back of the one figure and the light helmets. I was concerned that those light shapes were too isolated.) It needed more of an abstraction of light passing through the composition.

In short, I lifted here and there to add more of a passage of light through the piece, enhanced a few darks here and there, pushed a few warm cool contrasts and carefully kept myself from ever considering details. . . . .or logic. For example, I decided not to fill in the cross bar brace and not to put an underside dark on the crossbar to the left of the pole . . . .why? Because those details would disturb the composition. Yes, those details would make sense but would affect the negative shapes.

I know this is a long explanation, but I believe this to be the place where I break through in the series to much stronger work. Thanks for being patient.

Size Matters . . . !


“Bucket Crane II”

Watercolor 22 x 30 inches

So many times I have painted a subject too small for the size of the format on which I was painting (the paper.)

Whaddayamean, Mike? Too small? The details were right. The ‘picture’ looked like the subject.

Yes, yes. I understand. But one must look beyond the details and see the RELATIONSHIP of sizes in subject versus the rectangle in which one paints. The comparison says soooo much!

Usually, for the subject to have the necessary power in a painting, BIG is the answer . . . . . . .so big that it crowds the edges and spills over the edges of the rectangle to assert its power. Or those shapes may appear to be floating in space and not connected to anything if the subject shapes are too small for the size of the paper.

There are times, however, when that feeling of floating in space might be necessary. . . . . . .like the painting above. I painted this idea once before in the previous post. If you compare the two paintings, one can see there is quite a different feeling in this versus the last. In this piece, the shape appears further from the viewer and definitely higher off the ground. If you fear heights as I do, then a painting like this might affect you emotionally putting a shiver of fear into your consciousness.

This is where it makes a lot of sense to sketch first (before painting) and do so inside of a rectangle of the same proportions as that on which you will be painting. By doing so, one can see (and should examine) the size relationship between the rectangle and the subject. It matters!!!

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.

Last Touches

As usual, the painting in the last post was crying out to me about that big light valued shape jutting out from the painting. It was too ridgid, too edgy, too long, too “a lot of things.” It needed changing.

But how does one change something which, in many ways appears ‘right?’

I have learned over the years that if my gut is niggling at me about something in a painting, I should pay attention. So, I did.

A mere value change at the left end of that long shape . . .a lost edge here . . .a slightly cooler tinge at the far left of it, but warmer than the tone under it . . . then put it in. Oh! that changed how the other stuff around it reacted. So, a little wash over a shape or two to make them settle back and . . .there! I am calling it finished. My gut is quiet now.
PS . . .Some have asked “Did I do a sketch first?” Yep!! It didn’t have all the nuances in it, but most of the compositional arrangement of light and darker valued shapes were planned.

On Glazing and Mist

“Elkhorn Neighbors”

oil on stretched canvas, 16 x 20 inches

This painting is a breakthrough to new territory for me: the use of glazinng and also painting a convincing illusion of haze or atmospheric mist.
To date, most all the oils have been painted ala prima . . . .or directly. The great thing about painting watercolor effectively is that one must learn to mix value, as well as color. That skill has transferred nicely to the oil world and has helped in the setting up of atmospheric perspective. In this painting, however, so much was necessary to establish a sense of space and forms disappearing up the background hill that repeated adjustments of value and color (cooler tones) had to be progressively overlaid on dried coats of paint.
I am finding another world in oil painting . . . .one full of variables and methods, not to mention substances and mediums. It is a maze, indeed. And while I am foolin’ round with this stuff, I am still plugging away at my watercolors . . . . . because . . . . .well, (ahem) it’s “Home” to me.

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???

Hard Weekend!

“Hydraulic Hammer”
Watercolor, 22 x 30inches
Friday morning I began this and was completely compelled by the compositional arragement of lights and darks. I worked on it Friday, Saturday and Sunday . . .from Sketches. This sort of subject calls up all the knowlege about color, light and shadow.
This is one I am very proud to post.

Seeking Drama

“Cliffside Dusk”
oil on linen panel, 8″ x 10″
Every artist is confronted with the problem of entertaining the viewer. Entertaining is something that takes more than a mere glance. There must be something other than the usual, mundane descriptions of what ever the artist is painting. This is especially true when there is little more than two shapes in the painting . . .one light and the other darker.

I have been playing with the same motif of the cliffs and bluffs along our coast for as long as I have been painting. Against the sky or the sea, the cliff is nothing more than a severe bump or rise out of a flat area. What makes a “bump” entertaining? Go on, tell me ! what?

The answer is not in the reality, but in what the artist creates. The more we copy what we ‘see’ as reality, the more mundane it can become. So the artist must do something to arrest the viewer and hold his attention. Or, the painting must hold some degree of shock value, I suppose. The artist only has a few tools to play with: Value, Shape, Color, Texture and Line. That is it. Value, shape and color hold the greatest potential for developing that ingredient of ‘shock’ or ‘visual stimulus.’ (Notice that details are not mentioned! . . .or considered . . .it is NOT details that matter.)

So, here is my shot at value, shape and color to carry the day with a ‘bump.’ I long ago let go of the photos and the actual subject to help me. Sketches from memory and establishing a strong compositional design (value sketch) before doing any painting is the basis for a strong, bold painting.