Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How to manipulate a Subject for a Better Painting

Subjects come in two types;  Nature i.e. the real world or a photograph. I have found over the years, real life, a photographic image and a painting are three totally different things.

When you stand in front of nature your subject is limited by your human comprehension. We can only see so far in the distance and the amount of colors that exist are more than we can visually see.

A photo on the other hand is limited by mechanical means. The light areas in the photo will loose detail as well as the shadow or dark areas, while the lens will distort shapes, for instance we've all seen a photo when someone's face was too close to the camera making it look huge and strangely curved. This happens throughout a photo in a less detectable but inaccurate way.

Just accepting nature or a photo at face value, using it "as is" does not usually net the best painting and it's also a boring way to proceed.  To create a painting that works the subject needs to be manipulated in order to make it work, here's an example:

This is a photo I took of some greens apples, a cantaloupe and flowers on a silver platter. It has a lot of the makings of a good painting but I'll need to see it differently to find out it's best potential. I'll use grey markers in a maximum of 5 shades of grey and a layout pad.

My goal is to break the image into simple shapes of shades of gray, I use shapes because a painting is made up of shapes unlike a drawing which is made up of lines. The fewer shades I use the stronger the design. I ask myself how I can join several smaller areas into one larger shade of gray while still making the image "read" as what it is. I am trying to create eye movement around and not out of the scene.
Here is the marker value sketch made from the original photo. In my next post I'll show the resulting painting and some of the choices I made manipulating the subject.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Through the Window continued...

    At this point I don't want to get caught up in any one area too long, which could throw things out of balance. When I'm processing what I'm seeing in order to translate objects into a painting it's necessary to forget  conventional thinking.
    After years of seeing things, an apple, a car etc. we all develop a kind of visual shorthand of identifying "things", we don't have to analyze a car to know what it is with a quick glance.  The opposite of this is to look at things as if you've never seen them before, and don't assume anything about them. Looking for shapes, than deciding what color to make the shape as well as what happens on the edges of the shape is how I move forward - don't think sail- think triangle of pale blue.

   Here is the finished painting. The difference between this stage and the previous is just more moving around the image and grabbing more shapes to develop.
   A few words about detail - the beginning painter believes the magic of a great painting are the details brought to near reality. This has some truth but can also be lethal for a painting. There are two major problems with this approach:

1. If everything is rendered in detail there is no room for the viewers' own personal interpretation of the painting, everything is completely spelled out for you
2. The human eye does not focus on everything at once, try it- stare at something and notice how things in your peripheral vision are fuzzier

  The strength of using details is to keep them in the areas that you, as the artist, want the viewer to look and dwell longer, the areas that you feel add the most clarity to your story.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

From the Window

    This painting is from our trip to Seattle to visit Rich and Jen this past May. One afternoon we read about the "Old Wooden Boat Museum". Of course this was right up John's alley, him being interested in all things wood. There was a wealth of interesting vessels, most of them on the water still. As part of the museum there was a building that housed a boat makers' library and classroom. The classroom looked out over the water, where students could learn about everything from navigation to canoe building.

    The ideal situation would have been to set up my easel right there and paint. Unfortunately I didn't have my supplies that day. Painting from a subject live is a great way to get some excitement in your painting right from the start.  If I don't have that I do everything to create a positive studio atmosphere, such as use a clear, large (8"x 10", at least) reference photo. The other thing I do is create "a situation" in the first layer of the painting. The underpainting washes shown here are the opposite color that they will be in the finished painting. This gives me a direction, in this case I need to work away from what is here.
  Why would I do this? It's not enough to just move forward copying objects the way they look, that is a boring way to work - why not just blow the photo up and call it good? What excites me in other artists work is to see how they handled the paint, how they translated what they saw, so wanting my painting to be something I want to look as well, I try and cause some trouble for myself that I can work out of- or not.

     Here is the painting after some initial paint application. In these large wood areas I am putting every tone of brown from blue/brown to yellow/brown to achieve some variety. The colors I am using are Cadmium Yellow light, Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Cadmium Orange, Burnt Sienna, Terra Rosa, Ultramarine blue, Cobalt Blue, Manganese Blue and of course Titanium White. At this point it doesn't matter which brown goes where, just getting an interesting surface started...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Cotton vs. Linen

    Up until this month I have mostly used cotton canvas to paint on. Why? It is easy to obtain, all of the art supply stores stock it as well as craft stores like Michaels etc. There are many different finishes from very smooth to a heavy rough surface, but what is available in prestretched canvases is usually a thin weight with a uniform woven texture. The priming ,(coating on the raw canvas) is a white acrylic gesso.
    If you stretch your own canvas over stretcher bars, cotton is fairly easy to stretch as it has a slight give to it. For my work, I usually stretch raw cotton, than put three coats of Liquitex acrylic gesso on top. The canvas shrinks slightly producing a drum tight surface to work on.
    Painting is not only about the subject but the way the paint lays on the painting surface as well. Wanting to see something different in my work I decided to try a roll of linen canvas.
   I decided to use an oil primed linen canvas because this is a more traditional treatment and I was ready to try something new, but traditional. I found it is a challenge to find canvas finished this way because the oil priming, which is white lead paint is not a process that is looked favorably on in the US. I found a brand not manufactured here and ordered a roll.
   I decided to paint two similar pictures at the same time in order to really see the differences in the surfaces of the oil primed linen and the acrylic primed cotton. Below are the two paintings.

The one at the top is on cotton canvas, the one on the bottom, linen

    Each painting has identical colors of paint, I applied it to one than to the other, but the one on linen appears darker. 
    The second thing is the painting on cotton has a smoother almost homogenous appearance, while the linen has a more organic look.
   The feel of the surface was also different. The oil primed surface allowed the paint to sit on it and be easily pushed around by the brush, while the acrylic primed cotton, being much more absorbent, pulled the oil from the paint causing it to be more difficult to manipulate. Below is a close-up view of both.

Acrylic primed on cotton

Oil primed on linen

    The linen surface made it easier to achieve variety in the brushwork, producing a more interesting image to look at. Somehow this creates more depth also. Give this a try for yourself, experiment with different surfaces, you may find one you like a lot better than what you are using.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Setting up the palette-

     As I set up a new palette today, I thought I'd share the paints I use. After several months my palette ends up looking like this-

    I can still use it but when I add more paint on top of what is here, the dried layers underneath tend to suck the oil out of the new paint, leaving it too dry to work with. As shown here I usually work on a sheet of 16" x 20" glass with a 2" rim around two edges made from masonite. This rim serves to "corral" the paint, keeping it from taking over the surface. Before I did this, the paint would creep into the center mixing area little by little over the weeks, until I had a mixing area of about 5 square inches to work in. 
   You can see this masonite piece clearer below;
    This palette is smaller than above, 12" x 16" and I have used plexiglas because I will be traveling with it. A piece of beige paper is placed under the plex so that I can see white paint clearly and judge values better. The masonite piece is treated with 2 coats of shellac or the oil in the paint will be drawn out by the porous surface of the masonite. The colors I use vary slightly but these are the basics: from lower left- Burnt Umber, Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Viridian, Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Light, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red Light, Cadmium Red Medium, Alizarin Crimson, Terra Rosa and Burnt Sienna. This whole palette is sitting inside the Masterson Palette keeper which has a soft plastic lid which snaps on to help keep things air tight and prolong the working time of the paint.
   Keeping the cool colors on one side of the white and the warm on the other is a good way to organize. Whatever way you decide to layout your colors always do it the same everytime, so that you can get what you need fast.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Head Study: General Grant

    Does this character look familiar? I wasn't lucky enough to have the original pose for me but I did see someone taking on his likeness at the Civil War reenactment at Spring Mountain Ranch near Las Vegas last spring. These types of affairs are great for getting some wonderful reference photos to paint from. Whenever I see a renaissance faire etc. advertised I am in the car with my camera.
   I began this like the previous head study, with a general tone on the canvas. This time I used the shadow on the face as the guide to determine the general color because the majority of the face is in shadow.

   The colors I used were Cadmium Red Medium, Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Viridian Green, Cobalt Blue and White. I started working around the image, massing in one color area against another, always asking myself is the shape darker or lighter than what it's next to?  Is the color warmer or cooler? Everything is relative and depends on what it is next to in order to appear as it does. This can go a long way in your freedom to manipulate something the way you want it. For instance if I wanted his face to look really red, I would surround him with a green (the compliment) background.

  Going into the shadow shape on the face, it's a matter of breaking it up in to subshapes, going one shade darker in the crevices with a mixture of Alizarin Crimson, Terra Rosa and Viridian. Getting the sense of sunshine is a matter of adding some warmth into every light struck area.

    He's getting tidied up somewhat here. This is the time I really need to slow down and ask myself if I have missed anything that is important or have included something that really doesn't add to the effect.

  A few minor details and that's it!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Head Study

I am focusing on painting the head for this month. I want to try and cover as many face types as I can, old, young, male, female etc. This is the study I did today and how I went about it.

First I look at the face to decide what the general skin tone is. Is it a orange/peach tone or pink or maybe gold, also could be more violet. Her tone was a warm gold made up of Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red Medium and white. With a palette knife a mix is made than loosely brushed over the surface with no regard for the specific face.
This are several benefits to starting this way. The first one is to get rid of the white canvas and initiate the surface. It's always daunting to stare at a blank white canvas. The second is to tone the white down so that the other values can be judged more accurately. Another is this creates a surface with a little slickness that will help the paint to move easier. At this point I took a paper towel and wiped most of the paint layer off so that it wouldn't be too slick to work on. It now looks like the image below.

I am using Raw Sienna and a #1 soft hair filbert to draw in the structure. Continuing the drawing looking for the placement of the cheekbones, shape of the chin, how the hair sits on the head, thinking of all the hair as one mass, one shape. The head is slightly angled down as well as to the left. These subtle things are very important to getting things to look "right". 
This face does not have a strong light and shadow effect on it which means I have to look more carefully to see where the modeling in the forms happen. The sides of the face turn backward toward the side of the head, the nose turns downward on the sides as it turns into the cheek etc. I want to go as far as I can without putting in actual features. This is almost like carving the face out of stone, but using paint instead. I'm adding some Cadmium Red light with white to the cheeks, more Yellow Ochre with a little Viridian Green to the contours on nose and under eyes. the hair is Burnt Sienna, Terra Rosa and Burnt Umber.

This is the time to slow down and start refining the transitions between things. 
Also soften the color and always keep making corrections in the drawing. Getting more specific with the features I start shaping the eyes and mass in some color to the mouth with more Cadmium Red and white.

Getting closer to finish, it's just a matter of breaking the larger shapes into smaller ones until you have gone far enough. There is way more in real life than you would ever want to put into a painting. At some point it gets boring and the freshness is gone if detail is taken too far. It's up to you to use your judgement  concerning how far is enough.

Here's where I felt I said all that I wanted to say about this image.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Composition-The first layer

In order for a painting to work it must be successful of several layers:
The first layer is the layer of design - the composition
The second layer is drawing 
The third -value
The fourth- color
The fifth -subject
As artists we find ourselves juggling multiple tasks at once. I often picture the performer on stage spinning a plate balanced on a stick, going on to spin another and another while going back to keep that first one spinning. 

Back to the first layer- composition. A strong design is the very foundation of a good painting. No other factor effects the successful outcome. The two most important components of a composition are:

Here is one of the most useful shapes in design, it's no wonder the arrow is used in many public areas to direct the flow of traffic or people. It gives a definite guide as to which way to go, or in the case of a painting composition, which way to look.

To the right is a painting by John Singer Sargent, a master of composition among other things.

The image below shows how the arrow shape has been used to lead the eye around the painting. The most contrast at the lower edge plus the arrow shape leads the eye up the arm, around the head and down to the dog. An upwards arrow at the bottom left leads back into the image.
Look at two more of Sargent's paintings below-

    On the left see the large triangular shapes that push your eye upwards toward the man's face, than off into the distance, downward and again upward. The portrait of the woman has a great deal of static tension causes by all of the angles seemingly pushing toward each other. Think about how you can use this very effective shape to lead the eye when planning your next composition.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

In the Studio - The Audition

This entry is going to follow my working progress on a current painting.

When I select a subject there are several questions I ask myself and a few I stay away from:

The question I don't want to ask- "Is the subject cute, pretty, beautiful?"
What I ask instead- "Do the shapes in the subject lend themselves to an interesting break up of space?"

The question I don't want to ask- "Is the color bright, dark or dull?"
What I ask instead- "Does the subject lean toward warm or cool, is there potential for interesting color interactions?"

What I don't want to think about - "that's a nice flower and dress and chair."
Better motive for a painting- "What one area do I want to focus on?"

I decided to start this as a monotone in order to work out the value shapes . I used burnt umber, burnt sienna, yellow ochre. In the dark areas I neutralized the burnt sienna with very small amounts of thalo blue. Sometimes working out one problem at a time is the best way to proceed.

By this time I had the shapes firmed up and had used the thalo blue in more areas. This is when the need to really listen to the painting is essential, the original reference will not help. The design foundation is what holds everything together, details will also not help. How are the shapes- do they:
-lead your eye to the most important areas?
-have variety, small, medium, large?
I can see a problem area on the right side, these shapes are very similar-

I need to think about a better way to break up the space, also the image does not have the "feel" I want, and this is something only you can decide. I am going to raise the dark shape in the background - see what happens...

This is starting to work, there is more interesting color breakups in her dress- but still not there yet. Again  I ask questions:
What is the dominant direction in this piece?  Vertical, maybe that's why the horizontal line created with the background shape is not working well.
What is the dominant temperature? Cool, so I will push this shape in the cooler direction.
What is the dominant shape? Angles, the background shape needs to be more angular-

That's it!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Color Relationships in Painting - Dominance

    In the previous entry I talked about how color transitions are part of a successful strategy in the painting process. Those transitions are what makes one color area visually flow into the next when you view a painting from a distance and makes it interesting upon closer examination.

   The other color concept that is very important to hold the whole painting together is dominance. Below is a painting that has a obvious dominance on the warm side of the color wheel. The large circle within the orange/red area on the wheel shows this range. Secondary to this is a range of yellow/gold, (shown with the smaller circles). There is nothing from the other areas on the wheel, which assures harmony. The black accents are neutrals, they don't count as color.

Here is another example: The painting to the left has an entirely different color palette. The dominance is in the warm green area as illustrated on the color wheel below. Second to this is the cool green area in the forground- the painting reads  as green dominant, warm-to-cool. There are small accents to this, cool reds and warm reds (oranges). 

Try this - get out a color wheel, put it in a plastic sheet protector. Using a felt tip pen draw on top of the sheet protecter with the color wheel inside. Start analizing the color dominance in your paintings.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Good Color, Bad Color

    Are there really some colors that are better than others? I am not talking about paint brands, I'm talking about what ends up in your paintings.
    So many times when I was teaching, a student would say that their number one goal in taking the class was to create "better color" in their paintings. It would help of course to define what that means. I won't go into the science of how our eye receives color from the light rays that hit a surface, nor is it necessary to know. The important part is that when certain combinations of colors are placed next to each other our eye knows it's not pleasant to look at. It's the same situation as when someone wears a bright purple pair of pants and a pale peach colored shirt.
    The answers are transitions and dominance. We'll deal with the first one now-Let's look at the color wheel

As we look around the wheel all of colors next to each other have similarities.
* They are related by hue (blueish, orangeish etc)
* They are related by value, (how light or dark they are).
Either one of these characteristics makes a desirable transition.
Now let's look at what happens when good color goes bad-

Here are three groups, each one represents a transition- none of them good. See how the colors that touch each other do not have value or hue in common. This makes it very difficult for your eye to appreciate them, like eating a salty potato chip than drinking a fine white wine- they don't do anything for each other. Look at the next group-

Each of these three groups share value or hue or both. So how does this relate to your painting- this happens every time you place a person next to a background or a tree next to the sky, transitions, transitions, transitions! And it does not only apply to primary type bright hues. An example:

Look for all the transitions in these two cropped images from my paintings.
Next we'll look at color dominance.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Overcome a Painter's block, part 2

    After I have a sketch that works, next is starting the painting. I want to keep this very simple - a monotone of Burnt Umber oil paint and Titanium White is my choice. Color can over complicate things, I can always add more later. A small canvas size, this is 11" x 14", makes it easier to keep elements together, see everything at once.

    Rough in the large shapes, think light shape / dark shape, those are your choices. Feel free to manipulate the subject to serve your design. I don't want to get stuck anywhere too long, that is especially true of the face, a place that's very easy to get hung up on.

    Start breaking the big shapes into smaller ones, which is the beginning of describing "things". Surprising how little needs to be done, try not to go too far. Keep asking yourself, "have I fractured a big shape by putting too many values inside of it?"

    I decided to add Terra Rosa and Yellow Ochre to the palette which is much easier now that I have the values established.