Monday, April 26, 2010

Back in the Studio

I spent some time in the studio with my "stiff" building.  Its presence ground on me and I found that the composition did not render any emotion.  Like most things, painting is mostly mental.  Maybe I will revisit and set the mill in its context, new "modern" addition and all.  In any event I set out to give the mill a bit of character and loosen it up some.  Your job, as they say, is to make it a painting.

On the Old Side, 10x12, Oil on Board

I worked on the texture and the edges with a gradation on the sun lit wall.  That gradation is in value, chroma, texture, and edges.  Had to compare values from memory.  Could have stayed with it and subordinated more shapes and masses.  Easier to complete on site.

In the studio I used a #12 bristle filbert and a palette knife.  The pigments left on my outdoor easel were still workable so I used them.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Making a Start

Yesterday we went to the Alton Mill.  Beautiful day.  5℃, sunny, slight breeze.  To everyone's surprise we were swarmed with Black Flies.  Yup, in April.  Supposed to be cozy fire place weather.  It is wrong, just wrong.

Fortunately I carry insect repellant and sun screen in my plein air kit.  Then it got really warm.  Clothes got peeled off.  Enough distractions.  It was a little difficult to settle down.  So the strategy was to make a start and carry on later.

Here is the morning start.  My wife has been desperate to see something other that the inner forest.  So I was "forced" do do a view of the mill from its pond.

Old Alton Mill, 10x12, Oil on Board

Since the building presented itself as the subject I decided to use a line and mass block in.  That way I could arrange the architectural and perspective elements - the drawing.  Then fill in the base colour somewhat like a colouring book approach.  This was done on top of a thin wash used to kill the white and to give colour harmony.  I use a brush to create the lines, but other methods also work.  Then I paint in the colours using thin paint.  Here you will see the wash showing through in a good area especially in the foreground.  At this stage I left the painting to begin another.  The underpainting is in shape to begin finish painting (colours and values correct).  But the light has changed and I wanted to get the other end of the mill pond and an image showing the new addition to the old structure.

This start approach is a very common one.  For many it feels safe.  You probably learned to work this way at a young age.  There are a few drawbacks.  First, careful drawing for a complex subject can be very time consuming.  Not so good in the fast moving plein air situation.  Second, edge work is easily ignored.  In the colouring book approach we tend to paint up to the lines but not into them and this will often also result in a stiff painting.

There are a number of other approaches to starting for us to explore.

The start was done with a #12 bristle filbert using its edge for the thinner lines and its side for the wash.  Some of the fill in was done with a #6 bristle filbert.

The paint on the palette was Mineral Violet, Ultramarine Blue, Cad Yellow Light, Viridian, Alizarin and Flake White.

Monday, April 19, 2010

It's Not Working

It happens to all of us.  What to do?  In the interest of time and frustration, one should not revert to the Book of Excuses.  You know the one, the PAINTING ISN'T WORKING, THE LIGHT CHANGED, or THE PAINT IS NO GOOD, or HE DOESN'T LIKE IT or.......  Inevitably I have found that the culprit is me and the way I am painting.  Often for me, the original concept has been lost.  I have to know exactly what I am doing wrong.  After a refocus on the concept I know that problems occur only in one of the five visible elements: Shapes, Values, Colours, Edges, and Paint Quality.

In order to take corrective action I must define the problem in a clear concise technical term.  For example, too many sharp edges, or colour needs to be warmer by adding orange, or value is too dark, or shape is too narrow, or paint too thick.  These precise diagnostics come from comparison to the concept, what I see, or another shape in the composition.  At least this results in a clear prescription to try.

Here is an example.

Out From the Crowd, sketch, 12x12, Oil on Canvas

This was the second painting of the day.  Below is the "after" photo.  See if you can see the changes made.  You can only guess at the concept, or what I was seeing, or why the composition.

Our From the Crowd, 12x12, Oil on Canvas

This satisfies MY concept.  It answers the question "What did I see?"

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Abstract of Nature and the Nature of Abstract

Have you ever wondered what makes a painting work?  Apparently we have only 5 broad tools at hand to help us put the right colour in the right place (Hawthorne).  We have shapes, colour, value, edges, and paint quality to compose with (Leffel).  If that is true, both abstracts and objective paintings would share these elements.

Dianne Shelton (well known abstract painter from Toronto) and I got together yesterday for a day of play trying the concept that a "good" objective painting and an abstract with similar shapes, colour, value, edges, and paint quality would both be viewed as "good".  To do this we traded objective paintings and then used them as a point of departure for an abstract.  This proved to be an entertaining day.  What a hoot.

Garlic, Distorted on the computer

This is the distorted image I chose from Dianne.  The original is in Switzerland.  The distortion was done to help me "see" the shapes, values etc. as opposed to the things.

I used oils for the exercise.  Dianne used acrylics because she finds them looser and more flexible.  This influenced me to use multi mineral spirits in the beginning.  I should also mention that I forgot my normal paints and had to use the "modern" palette I tested a few days ago.  That made for more "accidents" - a good thing.  I clamped loose canvas on to a piece of plywood and washed on a wack of transparent yellow, followed by a mixed dark, then with no thinking allowed some other blobs and shapes.

Before Assessment

Our working approach is quite different.  I am working vertical on an easel.  Dianne, who came from the world of water colour and painting flowers plows in and lets the painting tell her what to do right from the get go.  After my start with slop and a large brush, Dianne and I stood back and somehow we both used the same criteria for adjustments.  Her approach is quite interesting.  She used her fingernail to scrape off some paint subordinating a passage, I added some impasto the draw the eye.  We agreed that  few "incomplete" passages should remain.  We made sure there was a touch of green somewhere (A Dianneism).  Mine for Dianne was Hansa Yellow mixed into a mixed black.  I added a bit of Pthalo Green.  Then I used a tube of paint to lighten an area and add some texture in Quin Red.  Voila!

"I just love it!  It makes me happy."

The hard part to believe is that this lady dropped into the studio gallery attracted to the painting, and I am sure, our laughter.  Still harder to believe, she is from Switzerland!

Dianne hard at play with a tiny brush

Notice Dianne is dressed for the occasion with her new sweater on.  here she is adding a detail to a small.  She has a show in two weeks and needs 20 pieces.  Go girl!

Saskatoon River

Dianne is working flat here.  This one was not working so I decided to use it as a point of departure for my version.  Interesting enough, we both had trouble in the same area.

So what do you think of our concept?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Refresh, Just Like a Season

My friend David has been filling my imagination with all his experiments.  He is quite like an alchemist.  This transition season (OK we are two weeks behind Toronto) is a nice interlude for changing things up.

I decided to change my entire palette.  This includes the white I have been using.  The change was a colour for colour pigment substitution.  All the pigments used are modern organics, except for the white.  It is a throwback.  The organics are high staining and transparent.  They also hold their intensity better than the Impressiomist pigments or the classical neutrals.  See for a great reference.  Here is what I typically use and what the experiment called for;

Old                                 New
Ultramarine                     Pthalo Blue
Viridian                           Pthalo Emerald Green
Cadmium Yellow Light  Hansa Yello Light
Cadmium Red                 Permanent Red
Alizarin                           Quin Red
Mineral Violet                 Quin Violet

For white I turned to David's favourite, Flake White.  By the way, his approach to speeding the drying of the white is to add Grumbacher's MG white which uses natural resins as opposed to alkyds.  Gamblin says this about Flake White;

It's the leanest of the Gamblin whites and the best underpainting white. Its beautiful opalescent quality is of special interest to portrait painters. Flake White Replacement has all the working properties of traditional Flake White: long ropey stroke, warm color, translucency and short brush mark. Not only does our FWR come without the lead but it also doesn't suffer from the fast drying time of traditional formulations, which contributes to the cracking of oil paintings over time.

Out I went to the trail in Silver Creek.  About 20 metres in I set up and tried to paint "what I saw".  These pigments mix in an entirely different array of hues compared to my usual.  A good reason to keep a palette stable - then you can be spontaneous and just reach instinctively for the pigments required.  Now the Flake white is another animal.  It is stringy with a mind of its own.  Carry on we must.  Here is what came of the two hour session at 5C on a beautiful morning.

Six Gliders Circling, 12x12, Oil on Canvas

For brushes I used three.  The #14 bristle flat was used for the wash of green and red.  Later on it was used for some edge work and to simplify a few passages.  The #12 bristle filbert was used without any mineral spirits and it was used on the cooler darks.  I only wiped the excess pigment off the brush to keep it dry.  A #8 long filbert was used for the warms and lights, again keeping it dry.  This is the brush that got into all that gooey white stuff.  As the Flake white dried I added some alkyd butter to the palette to make it workable.  Brush strokes hold beautifully in the Flake White.

Go to your room and practice.........

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tonalists, Valueists, Impressionists, Imagineers

Things are transitioning quickly here with the rain.  So lets look at more colour concepts.

There seems to be two broad approaches to painting when it comes to colour.  Classically there are those who focus on tone and value.  Our visual world is traditionally based on a belief that we know the colour of things (such as trees - green, sky - blue etc.).  In fact these accepted colours are so set in our mind that we do not "see' anything else.  We have all experienced the phenomenon.  For example, we glance at a shape we recognize as a door, open it and walk right in.  When asked for the colour or the kind of door knob we are often unaware - because our set filter for the known object is all we consciously "see".  It is the same for most of us painting something familiar.  Many artists approach painting from drawing and value.  Rembrandt, Titian, Valazquez, and others had such highly developed tonal sense that most observers are unaware of their limited colour range (and their materials also limited colour choices).  The second approach is total colour which focuses on the effect of the prevailing light on the object/mass.  Monet and his "what an eye" developed this approach.

Here are two examples of a tonal approach to painting.

A start of a still life - in umbers - David Leffel

Notice the drawing and the shading.  The image is in earth tones and the shadow darks are used to give the feeling of form.  In times past artists did not have modern pigments at their disposal.  Today, glazers and traditionalists favour this approach.  

A House in Local Colour - Susan Sarback

This image is executed as a camera would see it.  The shadows are a tone of the colour of the object in the light - the tall tree for example.  The object and drawing are important in this process.

Here is the same image done by "seeing" the total colour - the effect of light on the object.

A House in Total Colour - Susan Sarback

This image was done by looking for and seeing the effect of the prevailing (sunlight in this case) light on the object.  The important thing here is the light effect, not the object, not the drawing or rendering.  The painting process is more aligned to sculpture.  Monet evolved along this path and Hawthorne and Hensche taught in his tradition.  Painting from life in sunlight is central to developing the eye to see the colours for this approach.  Notice the colours in the shadows.  This training takes time and execise.

Today painters use these approaches and everything in between, such as expressive colour, imagined colour, planned colour, emotional colour, accidental colour.....

Each approach is valid for the concept the artist is exploring.  All approaches can be used with the tools and materials available to us.  Now, if we could just discipline ourselves to make a concept statement and stick with it.