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.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Overcome a Painter's block

If you have produced "good" paintings in the past, but find yourself going through 3-4 or more unsuccessful paintings you might start asking yourself things like;
-Have I got what it takes?
-What's wrong with me?
-Did I ever know what I was doing?
    When I get to this point I realize my thinking is not on track and usually I am painting the subject and not the design, which is the first and most important layer of a painting (I will talk about layers later). Getting back on track is the next step.
    How I do this is to head for the book shelf and pull out a book containing paintings by a well proven artist, like John Singer Sargent. He was a painter of Dukes, chandeliers and satin ball gowns but he was so much more. Underneath every painting sat a fabulous abstract compositional structure.
    Grab a small sketch pad, some vine charcoal and a pencil. Pick a random image from the book and do a small (5") thumbnail black and white sketch. This is a simple diagram of the major shapes in the piece. Do about 5 of these, tape them up on the wall and look at what they have in common:

-Most of the darks are linked together
-Shapes are anchored to the edges of the canvas
-Diagonals move your eye to the center of interest
-There is nothing in the painting that does not have a purpose

Yes, this is what good design looks like!

Now do some similar thumbnail sketches of images
you are thinking about painting. Put those up by the first ones. Do they have the same things going for them? Work until you get one that you like. Next post Beginning the Painting