Fixing a Big Problem


“The Overseer”
Watercolor 22 x 30 inches
After finishing my painting, “The Overseer,” last week I was perplexed by the total lack of color variation in the shadows and the harsh contrast in the painting. I worked hard on Photoshop to try to correct the problem to no avail. After much consideration, I decided to repaint the entire painting. There were a few small compositional fixes I could make, such as the fire hydrant in the foreground and the dark car on the left margin. Both needed to be moved inboard a bit. But those were the least of the problems. My biggest difficulty was what was happening inside my expensive camera . . . .
I have learned from a photographer friend that digital cameras average and compress the exposure data in a picture. That is, the necessary aperture setting for white areas are smaller, or less exposure time is needed, than for black. When an image has both white and black, as well as middle values, the camera must measure what is required for the extremes and average them to affect an acceptable exposure. The problem is that in that averaging, much of the collected data is compressed and some is actually discarded in order to arrive at a JPEG image. In that process, any subtle color shifts are typically lost.
So my problem was two fold: I had exposure problems and a painting problem where I had not expressed the necessary color variation well enough and had too large of a value interval (black to white) in the painting. Both had to be fixed. I went back to the easel vowing to keep my goals of keeping value extremes to a cautious minimum and to put more recognizable color variation into the painting. I could not go into that state of ecstasy that takes us painters away to another planet for as long as we are applying the paint. I had to stay alert.
In the end, the painting was an improvement over the first one. The difficulty then was to find out how to get around all that compression and averaging inside the camera. I found the solution in photographing in “RAW” mode. That is, every pixel is recorded as is, in Red, Green or Blue, without modifying or averaging the data. I have found that most professional photographers use this mode for that very reason. I had some studying to do to learn about this and to decipher my expensive camera to be able to pull it off.
I often marvel about how much I have had to learn about other stuff than painting in order to produce a decent painting, or photo of one. I have been struggling with photo issues for decades! Then there is the other stuff, too, like priming canvas, or the mediums in which different paints are suspended, or comosition, or what ever . . . .which I won’t go into here. It all has to work in concert.
Surely, you can see the difference in the two versions above. Do you think I was right to step up and re-tackle the whole thing?

Inactive?

“Squatter”
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.

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.

Tapping Into “That Place”

“Sienna Linemen”
watercolor and Conte Crayon 22 x 30 inches
If you read the last post, it was about how this subject has reached me under my conscious self . . . . . that is, the idea of making something powerful and interesting is nagging at me both while awake and asleep.
That level of ‘concern’ or ‘obsession’ or ‘compulsion’ is healthy for us artists, I believe. It becomes a drive or a motivation which cannot be explained (unless you are a psychiatrist). It is healthy because it eventually bolsters confidence to do something . . . .anything! Once begun a flow begins. It may take multiple tries and attempts, but the soul insists that we continue.
After finishing one painting today, I was determined to do another, more simplified piece focusing on Line, Shape and Value. I had several sketches on my desk lying around the computer on all sorts of documents and scraps of paper (organized, eh?!). I grabbed them and headed for the studio after finishing my last post.
On a large sheet, I began . . . .but swore I would draw from the balls of my feet instead of my fingers . . . . .I would get full swing of my arm while in the motions of drawing . . . not flailing about, you understand, but putting some big, strong shapes on the page and doing it sans concern for accuracy. Then I took up my conte crayon and began with strong, heavy black line.
With a two inch stiff bristle brush I quickly carved in some value washes . . . and without concern for color. Just two siennas and a bit of ultramarine blue. I was seeking flat shapes and a strong, large value shape which established the composition . . . . .so I kept the values fairly close as I put in the big shapes. The entire thing took less than 45 minutes and (it seems) I have a strong start at finding that ONE piece that will stand above the rest.
More work is needed, of course, but if progress like this continues, a really good one should pop into existence soon. (that is if I can get the time to paint!)

Toying with Line and Color

“Line Splice”
watercolor trial 22 x 30 inches

Few a few days I have been alternately prepping for a workshop and painting . . .among other things. This is a hurried painting on the back of a ruined painting . . .in other words, a trial of a few ideas.

The first idea was to set a mood of an approaching storm and a shadow of danger. That meant I had to use color in a way that was moody and foreboding to a degree: few, if any, pure dazzling colors. I chose to paint in a strategy of Shades, Tones and Tints. In this approach, tones dominate the image while I used shades for shadow areas and the darks. The Tints were reserved for the lineman’s shirt . . . .the edges of it which were in the light.
As well, the use of LINE as an element in the painting was another item I had to fool with to get the feel of which technique to use to express the cables and phone lines in the piece. As it turns out, all but one are freehand. I tried taping the lines off . . . .it was too ridgid. I tried painting with a soft brush and it became too fussy. Then I happened upon a very stiff bristle brush, flat, used on edge . . . .that did the trick.
The gray sky area (the negative space) is much too sloppy for what I needed to accomplish, but now I know I must mix a large amount of wash to attain the uniform feel I am after. I will use a tub of premixed wash on my next attempt and use that as a mother color to establish color variation in the negative space.
The line work in the piece definitely gives a feeling of empty space which emphasizes the shadow of danger. The tree trunk and utility pole on the right of the piece hold the eye inward and make for a strong tie to the left margin via the wires and cables.
I like this one. When I return from my workshop, I will explore making a serious painting of it.

White Izzzn’t White

“Sully’s Fresh Crab”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches

Nope! It just Izzn’t!

Our eyeballs just can’t see what we think we see.

Yesterday was another beautiful day in the sun . . .warm and bright . . . .a perfect day for Butch, my painting buddy, and I to go out and paint. So we went back to the harbor where lots and lots and lots of white boats live. I am telling you true: What seems white just is NOT!

The little device you see above is a value viewer. It is very helpful to look at an area, (such as the side of a white boat hull in shadow) to judge the value. When peeking through the little hole and comparing the value of the white in shadow, one can instantly see that it is more a mid value than a light white. Then . . . comes the problem of getting that value onto the paper or canvas. That big piece of white paper can really throw off our judgment, too. We make a paint mark on the big white page and the mark seems darker than it really is because we are unconsciously comparing all that white field with the value of the mark . Yikes! That little viewer helps.

BUT . . . .there is still another problem (these difficulties are some of the reasons artists find plein air painting so difficult) . . . .that is if you are painting watercolor, the paint fades after it dries. Which compounds the value difficulty!!!!! One must be able to predict how the value of a mark or wash after it is dry. GAAAADS !!!! Is there any end to this stuff??? !!

How does one solve it? The viewer helps. The rest of it is fixed with plain old mileage.

Huh? Did you say Mileage?

Yep! That is what I said. Let me clarify: BRUSH mileage. Translated, it means tons of practice.

I have been painting for 20 plus years and still find plein air painting full of problems and difficulties. Yesterday was no exception. After getting home from a 4 hour painting stint and looking at the painting in normal indoor light, I could see the values of my boat hulls were wrong . . .not dark enough. Like I said, white just izzn’t white!!! So, several glazes later (and spoiled pristine washes) I came up with this painting. A lot of fussing and much self talk about what I will do next time and solemn vows about not letting this happen again, I finished the painting attempt.

You may think this is an okay painting. It was certainly fun and most instructive, but I simply MUST go back and try again and again. Butch and I discussed this aspect of being a painter: the compulsion to get better . . . . .and it is indeed a compulsion. Maybe someday, with enough brush mileage under my belt, it might happen. For now, though, it is best to focus on doing the best I can and having fun in the process because to be out there is simply a total gassss!!!!

Getting on the Horse

“Hobbie Horse Dreams”
Watercolor-18 x 24 inches
In a few days I am off to teach a workshop on composition. And I have not painted in a while. I am rusty . . .a little out of practice.
A few days ago (see last post) I went to the studio to ‘sling paint’ and loosen up. I did that and more . . .I started the above painting using a derivation of a shape I had used before in an abstract painting. I liked the shape, so, what the heck: Let’s build another abstract.
You might be thinking just have at it and see what comes, right? Nope! It is way bigger and more complex than that.
For me to do one of these takes days and often weeks. It is the best way I know of to get on the horse of painting again and put the brain into full gallup.
As I see it, any painting is about composing all the elements (line, size, shape, direction, color, value and texture) into a whole where the sum is greater than the parts. It is a process of choosing one or two large shapes and fitting them into the rectangular format in a pleasing way . . . . .but then the fun starts: Edges need to play off one another, textures need to be created, varied and changed yet be related in some way. Unity must be the result with contrasts and harmonies derived from all the parts: Hard vs soft, red vs green, dark vs light, etc. Value transitions and movements must be created in order to lead the eye on a path through the painting.
My rule is never do the same thing twice. For example, I may use a teal color (three times in this painting) but I force variation in each repetition. There are two small teal shapes and one teal line. One of the shapes has been lightened and made opaque while another is textured over with a tone . . . .so you see the teal shape, but know immediately it is different. The kicker is to drill one’s self to make each mark feel as though it has ‘membership’ or belongs to the others. When that is done well, interest rises.
I will grant that someone there in cyber land won’t like this painting. Maybe someone will say it is tooooo much! Too contrasty or too dark or too edgy or too something. That is okay by me. Every painting, successful or not, is a learning trial. That is to say, if the artist goes about making art via continuous experimentation and exploration to see what will happen . . . . .eventually that artist will excel at his or her art and most likely pass other established artists.
The trick is to get on the horse and ride like the wind. Put the spurs on and go as fast and as hard as one is able. The cool thing about getting on is this: If you fall off this horse, no one gets hurt!

On Value Transitions

“Crumpled Considerations”
Watercolor 30 x 22 inches
Last week a gentleman inquired about my method in making these non objective paintings.
First a sketch. A simple sketch which shows two or three simple value shapes. Those different values must, in my mind, exist in a ratio of Large, medium and tiny. Which specific value group is one size or the other doesn’t matter. I happen to like a large lighter compositional shape which reaches for and touches at least three sides of the piece. The dark and medium values would surround the large shape.
Mind you, when I refer to “light,” it may mean several different light values . . . . . .that is lighter than everything else in the painting.
The big trick in putting this to paint is to first isolate the large light shape by blocking it in with various glazes of paint layers. The use of glazes assures variation and, if I am careful with different techniques, texture, too. Over several days, I will gradually begin to encroach on the big light shape along the edges, gradually changing value and color. By edges and the amount of encroachment, this could mean as much as covering the majority of the shape or as little as a mere centimeter into the shape.
The work ensues until there are a series of value steps from dark to medium to medium-light to light to lightest. Those transitions and graduations of value (and color) prevent the eye from being stopped by too much, or too sudden, contrast. Only at one location will there be a strident step from dark to lightest. And that location will be in a very strategic spot.
Gradually textures are created and, toward the end, there are a few stampings and spatters in unique places to help soften or assist a sudden value transition. In short, this process requires a lot of attention to edges and contrasts.
As the piece nears completion, there are always errors and problems with balance and misplaced contrasts. Sponging out areas using various masks (or not) helps to resolve many of these issues.
Overall, the goal is to make a painting which is completely unified from corner to corner, where there are relationships throughout the piece. That is where shapes are related in their character, value, color and or texture. There must be passages and movement through the piece and it must have excitement. That last word is the opposite of boredom. Every single square inch (or centimeter) must have something happening that is related to other parts of the painting, but in that relating must also be different. Texture stampings, for example, must be similar but different. VARIATION is a a key operative.
So!! There you have it. How long do paintings like this take? Weeks and, frequently, months!
Failure is my companion every step of the way. It is part of the process. The trick is to work the painting until it is finished: Never give up. Think think think think!!!!

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.

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.