The Ultimate Challenge

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)

Color Play, Too.

“Sentinel Flats”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

I have a goofy, abstract side as well as a side of me that loves the implied realism which emerges when all of the elements and principles of design optimally meet.

That means that for ‘reality’ to emerge contrasts can’t get too far out of hand, shapes must be designed but recognizable, values must have their transitions and appropriate assignments. (by assignments, I mean that the dominant value of a region in the painting must have a dominance which seems to emulate reality.) And, of course, color has it’s place, too. Good color harmonies and gradations make all the difference in a well executed painting.

But!!! . . . . . .there are times when the playful side of me screams to get out. And . . .when that happens, just about anything will show up. In this case, it was more of what I had done earlier in the week at Yosemite. While Sentinel Rock was right out my back door, it’s shape is recognizable from all over the valley floor . . .and above the valley.

With sketchbook in hand in the mornings, I would draw from my previous sketches or paintings and redesign shapes . . .reorient their placement on the page . . .exaggerate or play down some shapes in order to call attention to something special. Set the values so the overall composition worked well, then set about painting it.

I just HAD to Play with color, too! Using a rigger brush with pure Perinone Orange (a brilliant red orange), I lined out all the shapes completely eliminating detail. Focus on shape, value and color. Period. Painting the inner parts of the outlined shapes in opaque gouache, holding down the intensity of the colors until the center of interest, where I played up the saturation, this was the outcome. Yep! It’s different, but definitely Yosemite.

By the way, if shape design is of interest to you, check out Peggy Stermer Cox’s blog (click here). (Check out her “Still Life with A Pony” images. What she does to keep a whisper of reality, yet make shapes leap out of the page is worthy of your time to go look. We could all learn much from her!

Elhorn Road Value Experiment

oil, 8 x 10 inches
I recently watched and listened to an artist do a demo (in oil) and sat bolt upright suddenly, as if I had been slapped, as he mumbled something about value relationships in landscape painting.

Huh? What did he mean by relationship? Oh, did he ever explain it and demonstrate it!

He made something become so very clear that I was absolutely struck by the revelation. Mind you, some of you out there will simply say, “Oh, thaaaat? Of course I knew thaaat,” and wonder why I have been so asleep for the last 20 years. I may have missed it more than once, but this time I really heard it.

The revelation was this: A painting has four kinds of ‘planes;’ the sky plane, the ground plane, upright planes and angled planes. Tall trees can be upright planes or a solid cliff. Just so it is vertical. The ground plane can be the top of a bush, too if it is near parallel with the ground. His mumbled wisdom was that the sky is the lightest valued plane in the painting. The ground plane the second lightest (that is slightly darker than the sky), while the vertical planes were the darkest.

He went on to say that there were accent darks and accent lights which were the darkest of the dark and lightest of the light . . . . .to be used most sparingly.

The point was simply that the ground relates in value to the sky, as do many of the highlights. The angled planes are darker than the ground and, thus, relate. Inside all of these four sets are the values of shadow and light. In the verticals, the darkest shadows occur, while on the angled planes there is a subset of shadow values lighter than the dark vertical set of values, which are related between the ground and the verticals. Another way to say relatedness would be to use the word **compared.**

On he went. And it was amazing to me. I grabbed a painting that I had done en plein air a few weeks ago and put it up on the easel and saw immediately why I wasn’t happy with it. The value relationships were all wrong! In ten minutes I glazed over the painting following the above wisdom and VIOLA ! What an incredible difference! The painting not only worked, but it sang!! Today, into the studio I went to whip up a similar composition using a different color scheme, but promised to paint those relationships of value. Whooopeee!!

This is so worth practicing and making careful note of the values as I mix them on the palette. There is more to this, but for now, I am jazzed to be fiddling with the basic relationship proposition. I can already see that the foreground is much lighter than the sky. . . .and that bluish background shape needs to be a lighter value. What an incredible tool!

No Sooner . . .

“Edge of Quail Hollow”
Oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches
No sooner do I think of something, often, and someone else publishes a commentary about it.

As you know, I have been plein air painting like a crazy fool . . . .just racking up brush mileage. While I have been getting better by increments, I have also noticed that I haven’t been paying much attention to good value composition while in the field. Hmmm! That just isn’t like me! To not plan for that, is to plan for mundane, not so cool, unaccomplished paintings. Then, Robert Genn ( published this missive in his twice weekly letter about value patterns. ( I think this guys is psychic, sometimes! (or, I am)) ;-))

He made note that it is often after coming in from being sidetracked by trying to capture a scene that we realize, days later, that we didn’t give composition its due effort . . . .and then we set about repairing the image to come to life with a strong pattern of dark and light. Now, that does NOT mean contrasting tones. What he means is a strong proportion of massed dark shades as an organized shape (or grouping of shapes) next to a mass of lights. Mind you, this isn’t about objects or things. It is about groupings of assigned values in order to pull off a strong abstract design onto which the objects are superimposed.

Some painters refer to this as Notan, which is a Japanese word for the same idea . . .massing darks and lights in an organized pattern. This pattern is usually what makes a composition sing out . . . . is is NOT the things in the picture or the subject. We painters call this ‘design’ . . . .or, at least, value design.

So, I caught myself making some re-statements in my recent paintings. Those chunks of dark, or little select areas of clean light against a dark are what makes the viewer sit up and take notice. Thanks for reaffirming what matters, Mr. Genn!

P.S. Robert Genn has one of the finest, most informative art blogs on the internet. His biweekly letters are always welcome and get read, often with more investigation following. If you aren’t familiar or haven’t subscribed, you might want to give it a trial. It is very non commercial and worth your time. Here’s the link:

The Underside

“Quail Hollow Livery”
oil on linen panel, 8 x 10 inches
More plein air work . . .more room for improvement . . . .having a ball fighting through it.

Some say that to learn to paint, one must get the first 500 paintings out of the way first. Only then do we begin to understand what is happening . . . .and only then to we begin not to care much for the ‘details’.

This painting, though poorly photographed, really showed me the importance of the underside of a tree and how that underside and the cast shadow on the ground sets up a beautiful value pattern. You be the judge.
As for photographing a wet painting, I wonder what will happen if I use a polarizing filter to cut out the light reflected back from the wet paint surface.

Scratching the Itch

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Photo 3.

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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.

A Third and Final Attempt

watercolor, 22 x 15 inches
Detail, SP-3
This is much better! But, before I go on, let me say this . . . . .this is definitely NOT about me. It is just a face and the answer to a painting challenge. Finally, it is always about learning. In the three SP’s (self portraits) I made substantial jumps in understanding a few things . . . but am a long way from being good at this.

I handled this portrait in a much different way . . .slowing down still more and thinking about design as well as color. . . .one might even say with more ‘sensitivity.’

Using an old technique (and some old manganese blue pigment) I hadn’t used for some time, I first defined the shadow shapes ( in this case one large shape from the top of the head all the way down the face onto the shoulder and off the page) with a huge brush, put down a granulating manganese blue wash. While it was still wet, I began charging in yellows and various reds and allowing them to run down the page (the painting was at or near 45 degree angle) over the granulating wash. That set the stage for lots of color variation and warm / cool transitions. After that wash was dry, making small glazes over small areas to darken and enhance differences in light and temperature. The eyeglasses are a great example of those sorts of subtlety. The end game was to resolve very subtle value and temperature changes in the light areas. The white shirt, for example was left white until the end, when a clear water wash was painted over much of the painting, but leaving the light on the face completely alone, which softened edges, improved transitions and knocked the white back enough that the whites in the face light ended up as being slightly lighter than the shirt.

That’s a long winded answer to how it was done.

And speaking of ‘done,’ I am soooo done with self portraits.

Oh! I forgot to mention that lump on my head. That’s where my wife smacked me for spending too much time in the studio!! ;-)) (Sure, Mike !! )

Self Portrait

“Self Portrait”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
Responding to David Lobenberg’s challenge of making a self portrait, I jumped in with both feet as I have been thinking of taking on portraits as a distraction from my usual fare.

So, I did.

Something about the usual portraits has always troubled me . . . .that is that many artists are so wrapped up in the details of the face, that they miss the value abstraction possibilities and the interest created by non symmetrical shapes. Mind you, I am not speaking of noses, chins, foreheads and that sort of shape. I am speaking of the shapes of the various VALUES of the light. In my book, it is the pattern of light on the face which makes a portrait much more powerful.

But what do I know? I don’t paint portraits. I slapped this one out in about two hours and realized that there is a lot to learn about color in portraiture. Temperature and intensities make huge differences in the painting of facial perspective.

Resolving an Incubating Painting

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.)

Painting Relationships

“Life on the Edge”
watercolor 22 x 30 inches
New painters are usually held in absolute hypnotic focus on the details of a subject. That seems to end in frustration most often. That frustration comes when ‘something isn’t quite right’ and the painter cannot identify what it is.

It usually has to do with relationships. What relationships, you ask?

How red might behaves next to green will be different than how it behaves next to, say for example, violet. How one value reads next to a darker value might be quite different in how it might read next to a more medium value. In other words, everything in every painting reads in the context in which it lies. If a triangle shape is the only triangle in a group of many circles, the triangle will seem way out of place, or will absolutely draw the eye due to its’ difference. (contrast!)

As I was painting this piece, the tops of the dark cypress (seen over the edge of the ridge and between the face of the big bluff) they drew the eye away from the focal point at the top left of the painting. Not good! So . . .how to fix it? It was merely a value relationship problem: the bluffs were lighter in value then . . .I had established a contrast that wasn’t consistent with the rest of the painting. Darken the cliff face . . .and keep the color contrasts at a minimum . . .was the solution.

Several difficulties like this arose all through this painting. The beach and the edges along the foam and sand were dangerously distracting the eye, also. Again, value differences and sharply defined edges (sudden value changes) pulled the eye away from what was important in the painting. The beach is meant as a quiet area to rest the eye, not attract it. The white of the foam had to be calmed, the edges blurred, the values brought closer were all slight but significant adjustments that were needed for all the different pieces in that area to relate and act as a whole, rather than individual parts.

Contrasts are what make a painting work, but building harmonies with them and setting up transitions and gradations between contrasts is a great challenge. It goes beyond painting “things” and “details.” As artists, our charge is to paint relationships.