Friday, December 30, 2011

Your Job...

"Is to make it a painting" said Gary Spearin.   When studying with him you knew you would be taken out of your comfort zone.  I was painting a motif that didn't speak to me.  Left to my own devices, I would have chosen something else.  Almost anything.

Found myself in that blah position Thursday.  Fresh snow and all.  Gary's words haunted me.

OK, we started in -12C with quite a wind at our backs.  We huddled at the base of a little valley where the wind chose to go over top of us.  At least in the beginning.  The spot offered more shelter than inspiration for me.  Sun predicted, heavy overcast delivered.

Peeking Through

Some got settled in and painted.

Almost Balmy

Next day, I began to recover the "effort" with a fresh eye.  The usual suspects.  I started by scraping the excess paint off.  Then I revisited the thumbnail - 3 values.  It became obvious that the planes in the scene needed to be re-established.  So I started there.  First as a thumbnail, then over top of the scraped "painting".  All from memory.  Dark darks.  Mixed.

Kick Start with Darks

The design shapes began to speak to me.  What had been a sole vertical without counterbalance started to appeal to me.  Gary, you devil!  So I emphasized the darks in the design.  Then I began to paint.  What was my concept?

Show the Planes or Not?

Moving towards the colours from my concept I continued to draw the planes, then cover them up.  Their purpose is to indicate depth, so I have to at least hint at them.  Find and lose some of their edges.  These photos were taken in a studio down town.  Poor lighting.  I moved towards the colours I wanted and the values in my concept.  Strokes either in the sun or the shade.  Some more directly catching the light than others.

Up for Second Appeal

I know I have some corrections to make, and I'll make those next time I get on to this one.  There are a few things I am not sure about.  Snow painting?  Maybe after a New Years Eve break.

Have a good and safe one everyone!

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Of the "three horsemen", I do the least work from my imagination.  Well, those of you who have painted with me have witnessed all sorts of cut and paste activities in the early design stages.  I guess that gives me licence to avoid the pure imagination exercises at least in my mind.

I was looking for my friend's sugar shack references.  Couldn't find them in the endless organization that is my cluttered computer.  I'll take that over an empty "desk" (empty mind).

So here is the action.

Taken from the Thumbnail

Three values.  A few shapes.  Snow covered.

Construction Lines, Snow Prism Effects

There are a myriad of colours in the snow.  Here I have direct light snow, dominated by two values of shadow with warm and cool variations.  Gotta get the values right.

More Corrections to Come

You don't get much of a shadow in a shadow.  Written about that before.   Part of seeing in the winter.

La Cabane a Sucre, Robert et Claire

Saturday, December 17, 2011

More on the New Board

Rick Taylor wrote suggesting that I use GAC400 as a sealer and then use clear gesso for a painting surface for my wood board experiment.  He commented that the clear gesso deposits quite a "tooth".  So, into the old inventory I dove.  I came up with an old GAC400 and a container of PVA Size.  Both unused.  A sign of a sinister habit.  

Left Board, Right Board

I tried one coat for a seal.  The GAC400 made the wood fibres stand up, the PVA not nearly so much.  So the PVA Size dried smoother.  I labelled the back of each board.  By the way I sealed on the reverse to reduce future warpage on the 1/8 baltic birch plywood boards.

The I applied two coats of the clear gesso.  It is a milky looking material and it says on the container that it dries "translucent".  I sanded a portion of one side of the panels to smooth them out a bit for comparison.

As Dried, Same Light, "Translucent"?

So we headed to the Hockley to test the boards.  Of course you have to do that outside!

Easel and Palette in the Shade

I started to lay in the plane constructions in a thin Ultramarine and Transparent red Oxide mixture using a hogs bristle brush.  First impressions - Rick is right, the tooth is significant, and the surface sucks the paint in.  I normally paint on a fast surface on an oil primed ground.   Here the tooth comes from either the canvas or the brush marks from the ground application and the tooth is not scratchy sharp.  The experimental arrangement however, played hell on my brushes.  But I had to carry out the test to completion.

Some Paint Applied

It sure holds paint.  Somewhat like putting pastels on sandpaper.  You can no doubt use pastels on this surface.  I tended not to go from thin to thick in gradual steps.  The thin paint sucks in and doesn't flow as it does on my oil ground.  Here I just started to load on the paint.  I made a quick second test start.

PVA Size Version

This version also seemed to suck up the paint.  Then I wiped it off, and most of it disappeared.  So, I am not sure if the size or the GAC400 sealed the wood and the gesso is absorbing the paint or just what is happening.  So, I have more experimental design to do.  

I started to use gel with the paint to smoothen out the feel of the paint application.  It is a saw off.  The sanded sections seem pretty much the same.

More Paint 

I had a look at the painting this morning.  To my surprise, it did not sink in and dull like I anticipated.  The thick paint is still thick, and the thin passages are not bad.  Please note that I did have 3 coats of paint on the thin areas.  Stay tuned on this one.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rx 1, Value Remedy in Grey

No workshop or book will instantly turn you into a better painter.  No secrets.  Only through hours on the brush will you come to see, internalize, and be able to apply these principles.  After such practice these concepts will become second nature and you will not have to think about them when you paint.  Just like breathing.   These exercises come from experience, teaching, and mentors.  They are aimed at mastering the fundamentals of painting.  They form a set of problem solving tools to be used when a painting isn't working.

I find in my teaching that the ability to get the values of shapes right is often a problem, a lingering one.  When a painting of mine is not working I look at value first off.  People are fooled by the value of a mass of colour, never mind the basic darkness or lightness of a shape.  Get the value right and everything else that follows has a chance of working.

The Exercise
Find a simple set of 3 or 4 shapes of different values.  In doors use a still life set up, not a photo.  Out doors, use a simple set of shapes, say field, rock, and sky.

Squint at the shapes to determine the relative value of each.

Draw a small thumbnail of the shapes, and shade each at the right value (3 values say - little choice makes it easier).  I use the paper for the lightest value.  Then I "paint" the darkest shape with my pencil first (darks provide the form).  Then paint the mid value shape.  No Detail.  Squinting helps eliminate that.  

Thumbnail - More Complex Than Required
Note: the values are numbered - You can see where this goes...

Go to your painting surface - canvas, board, etc. and using a grey that you mix, do the same as your thumbnail.  Concentrate on getting the right values.  Paint thin.  Check the values.  you can use a value scale for this.

3 Values Mixed - Here, Ultramarine and Red Oxide

You will have to make the values correct for the shapes you observe.  Any grey you like will do, but mix it.  Then you can always get a grey when it is needed.

Looks Like the Thumbnail - Ready to Paint

And here is a reference tool to help calibrate your eye.  I don't use this while painting since I have practiced values for a long time.  But on occasion.....

Value Scale

The value scale becomes very important as you move into colour.  So, learn how to use it.  Line the value scale up with the shape you are trying to check.  When the match is close, squint.  The right match occurs when the scale and the mass fuzz together.  That is they appear the same with no difference in value.  When you add colour this is critical.  Colours are quite often a different value than you think.  Trust what you see using the scale.

Practice this exercise without proceeding to a finished painting.  The more starts the better.  This exercise will also help with;

Judging relative values,
Drawing (thumbnails) - shapes

This is the type of thing that should be taught in a continuing painting class.  No quick fix, practice, practice, practice.  Patience.......

Friday, December 9, 2011

Wonderland, Or How the Green Went Away

"Looks good up here, don't know how long it'll last."  OK, another hour drive to meet at the bakery.  Was it worth while?

Wonderland in Overcast

Everyone was excited.  First real snow fall.  When I no longer get excited by that, it'll be time to put them in the fire.  In unison, "hmmmm, how will I deal with this?"

 Back to Back

Well, no more green.  So one option might be........

Some Structure

Or, maybe a portrait...........

And Snow On Da Palette

Keep it simple.  I chose a scene with three values and masses.  Thumbnailed up.  "Paint" the thumbnail with a 4b pencil.  Put the masses in a pleasing place.  Force everything into 3 values.  Get the values right.  Then relax, and paint.  Oh, and snow is never white.  Key to getting this painting.  Sky warmer than the snow and darker in value - so 4 values.  Beautiful.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Farm with a New Board

We decided to go out painting at Scotsdale farm for a December 1 outing.   The forecast was for sun and 5C.  They got the temperature right.  I suggested we do a simple painting to focus on shapes and values since it was a grey day.  We went to the remains of an old movie set and proceeded to set up for a three value subject with 4 shapes.  Boring, but a good exercise.  I had prepared another raw birch panel that had been sealed with two coats of clear colourless sealer.  I thought the natural wood colour would be interesting to explore.

The Movie Set Shed

From the photo you could argue that there were 4 values.  The sky, the dark opening and "shadows", the trees, bushes and ground.  I saw a green, red, green, red pattern against the greys of the forest.  Squinting, I saw the building and the forest as similar in value, but different in hue and temperature.  

The Next Morning.....

A little disappointing in the morning.  After being told "its done", I approached the easel to find the paint had disappeared into the thirsty board.  In addition, I didn't like the composition.  Apparently I need a better preparation for the raw birch.  Then there is the decision regarding the painting of the exercise.  Work on it or prepare it for the fire?

I oiled it in to get the feeling of the original wet paint on the board.  It looked like this.

Oiled In

What to do?

It is not unusual to return from a plein air session and find the work needs more work to get it into shape to meet the requirements of the original concept.  Given my original concept of an exercise, I decided to work on other paintings that have a destination.  Maybe on a rainy day........

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Rx Remedies

From comments it seems that many readers would appreciate learning about exercises aimed at improving their art.  It is one thing to read about it or look at it, but that is very different from doing it.  I think I will make some posts on Rx Remedies spaced out between the regular posts.  Please feel free to comment comment on this proposal.  This is part of the purpose of this blog.

Gray and Simplified

The subject areas come from my experiences and observations in my classes and painting sessions of my own and with others.  These Rx Remedies will include exercises aimed at enhancing the core building blocks such as shapes, values, colour, paint quality, and edges.  In turn the exercises will also help with subject matter choice and design, and the elevation of the design to an art form.  The exercises can be thought of as workshops.  Everyone knows that a workshop (say a day) will really only give you one idea, and that the idea will only become yours after you leave the workshop and give it practice.  Your paintings will improve as you practice a set of the ideas in such a way as to be able to connect them together.  There are no short cuts to this, practice, practice, practice.  That is the secret.  The Rx Remedies will be spaced out enough to allow for practice.  Those looking for instant gratification will probably not participate, preferring facebook instead.

Summer Study

Bright Day Winter Study

I think Harold was right.  For a representational painter, landscapes outside, still life, figurative, imagination, inside.  Portraiture from life, inside or outside.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


I'm not referring to the financial robber baron forecasts, just the local weather.  Both are quite often wrong.  OK, most often.  The temperature has been unusually warm, so despite the foreboding forecast we headed up to the Hockley Valley.  Sunny and warm they promised.  "Trust me."  Driving north I watched the dawn and saw nothing resembling the sun.  Zero degrees said my car.  I know I won't get cancelled,  we are down to the hardies now.

Wandering the Hockley, hoping that the sun was just a little late, we stumbled on the site of "St. Paddy's Surprise.  It was created on March 17, 6 or 7 years ago.  There had been a snow storm.  Well, this time it was the first ice rink of the season.  Careful.

Faceoff, Oil Painter Style

Some interesting possibilites.  Tonalism, perspective in several varieties, flattening, high eye level.  So why not try a panel sealed but not gessoed and oil primed?

That panel just sucked up the paint like a blotter.  Had to use a load of mineral spirits and paint just to get the shapes and values down.  Then I looked up.......

Ice Under the Sun

Out he came just as the setup was finished and the notan and first layer was complete.  Now, the sun was low, so the sunless and sunny versions had a number of similarities.  I chose the in between version.  That required some memory and experience.  Make it a bit moody I thought.  Capture the ice.  Plaster the paint on the blotter.

Shapes, Values, Colours Indicated

The blotter slowed the progress.  Had to dump a pile of paint on there.  Ice in full retreat.

Blotter Finally Covered

Now the temperature went up in the direct sun, but the wind came up and the air temperature was stuck at zero C.  All I could think about was "this is going to disappear in the blotter over night.  We departed for a coffee and a bite to eat.

The next morning I found the painting still thirsty for paint.  So, I sealed it again.  This time I used alkyd gel, lots of it.  Today I pulled it out dry and began to paint.  It was like painting on a thin underpainting with traces of colour.  It was dark.  I tried to keep some of the passages since they seemed interesting.  Built up the paint everywhere else.  It will get the finishing touches in the next couple of days.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Oil, Thick, Thin and In Between

Lately I have been observing people in a class painting en plein air with oil paint.  Some people have been painting for a considerable time, some not so much.  Aside from the fundamentals, many are experiencing difficulty on their palette.  The problem is controlling the amount of paint on their brush.  This results in too much paint too soon in the process, or a gooey mess.  Some people can work with these conditions, some can't.

Thick and Skipping

Well, this person was not trying to get broken colour.  The paint was too thick to manipulate or move around.  Dry brush when something else was intended.

The cause - on the palette the painter could not manage to take a sensitive bite of paint from the squeezed out piles to match the medium in the brush.  Too much paint, inability to mix the the required tone.  Then the squeezed out paint ran out.  Interruption and more squeezing out.  The other extreme for this person was a load of mineral spirits and a bit of paint for preliminary underpainting, followed by more of each.  Both practices progressed to end with too much thin paint that was too wet to work with.

A Start With Thin Paint

Here is a start with lots of mineral spirits in the grey paint.  Now, if you can just continue with ever more paint in a slow progression.....

Of course, there are no rules for this.  Lots of practice will usually straighten out the problem and result in coping mechanisms that allow for occasional overdoses to be dealt with.  You can work with mineral spirits, or paint from the tube, or paint treated with a medium, etc.

Keys for success;

  • Put out more than enough paint.  Use it to get the required viscosity.
  • Practice taking appropriate amounts of paint to get colour and maintain desired viscosity.
  • Hold the brush properly to let the paint come off.
  • Listen and feel the paint coming off the brush.
  • Practice increasing the viscosity in small amounts for each layer - ie stop using mineral spirits - fat over lean
  • Experiment with mediums, raw paint, mineral spirits, or combinations.

Keys for Recovery from an overdose;

  • Scrape off excess with a palette knife.
  • Remove excess with a rag, paper towel, or finger.
  • Take a break to let the paint set up.
In less detail this means practice, practice, practice.  Or, "go to your room" and paint as Robert Genn says.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Using a Second White

Recently I have found a second white appearing on my palette.  Most of the time I use Titanium White.  In the last couple of years I have explored a number of Titanium Whites.  I like Gamblin, Rembrandt, and of course Old Holland.  For value I have used a lot of LeFranc.  During this exploration I also delved into Lead White.  I really like it, but I find I don't prefer it in all applications.  It is fantastic in places I want a warm white, in impasto, and in places where I want an unpredictable outcome.  It tends to come off the brush stringy and wobley.  If I whip it, it gets more viscous and ropey.  Great under the palette knife.

Titanium Above, Lead Below

OK, it is only a picture, so difficult for you to see the hue difference.

Titanium Under The Brush

Then, carefully trying to do the same with the lead white;

Juicy, Gooey, Lead White

I used LeFranc Titanium White and RGH Lead White.  If you want to buy RGH, call them first and order over the phone.  Old Holland's Lead is fantastic but expensive.  I have been using Flake White Replacement by Gamblin.  It has maybe 80% of the properties and none of the lead.  Good news for those who like to suck their brush.  I have found RGH Extra Fine Lead White and Blue Ridge Flemish White to be interesting as well.  Both come out of the tube loose and very smooth.  Both whip into a viscous pile for less control or more impasto.  Thixotropic me thinks.  Store these tubes upside down to eliminate oil separation.

Yesterday I used Lead white and Ultramarine Blue for some sky work (Below).  Just mixing on the palette gave me a look that is out of the ordinary.  It looked translucent and warmer than the usual and the ropeyness gives almost a two tone effect if applied with that in mind.  I usually mix in another pigment but not with this.  Its not for everyone.

The Creperie, Pont Audemer

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Honfleur With Boudin

Boudin was born in Honfleur and convinced the young Monet to paint outside.  This is one pretty town.  She has been painted many times by any number of painters and a few artists.  She escaped damage in the second world war.

Honfleur Inner Harbour - Reflections

A few plein air artists set up daily around the harbour.  There are so many paintings there, never mind the rest of the town.  People watching at its finest.

A Pretty Scene on the Harbour

So, I had to set up.  Remember I get an hour, so set up time is critical.  And the wind was gusty.  I chose a bollard to put the little box on.  Just got into the painting and a gust........

Blown Down in Honfleur

By this time I was thinking about modifications to the little box.  It wasn't to blame, but a more substantial easel would be welcome except for the weight.  One tube of paint was punctured, bummer.  I did get a sketch with indications of all the architectural detail at least suggested.  I personally don't care for all that clutter, but I find it difficult to get past it quickly, on site, and wanting a memory.  To help with that, I use big brushes, a short palette, and a value shape plan from a small thumbnail sketch.  This quickens the pace by getting big coverage with each stroke of the big brush, placing the stroke and leaving it alone until treating the edges, and by decreasing the decision time given the few colours to choose from.  For the short palette to be an assist, one has to be able to quickly mix the tones required.  I practice this in all my plein air work unless I am on a different mission.

Friday, November 4, 2011

How Many Cobbs on a Stalk of Corn

Lets see the farmer in you.  My friend Irish Joe Cleary introduced me to the corn fields years ago while training for a marathon.  So, how many cobbs on a stalk of corn?  On the corn syrup can there is three.  My mother in law, a farmer, says there is way more than three.

An Artist Observes

If you paint you must be a good observer, right?  You learn to "see", right.  Well, there is ONE cobb of corn on a stalk.  Yup, one!  Seems like a huge plant for a one tiny cobb.  Well, for 15 years it had always been one cobb on my trips into the cornfield.  But alas, we found a variety with two on at least a significant proportion of the stalks.  We had to come all the way to Giverny to discover this trinket, and no, they have not been pruned back.  What's next?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Giverny with Monet

You can sense the energy.  Our day in September was awash with colour in the gardens, a visit in flower high season (May June) must be incredible.  We arrived early, but bus loads of mostly Americans were already on site.  The grounds are quite large so the crowd at this stage was well dispersed.

A Few Flowers

All ages, sizes, and shapes were viewing the gardens in fall colours.

Start Young

And of course the lilly ponds and Japanese bridge.

Caption Required

We left Monet's grounds for a stroll through the village.  It is beautiful and quaint.  Could paint here for some time.  It began to rain and I was getting itchy to paint, so.....

Hotel Musardiere Window with the Little Box

And voila, we gets..........

And the Sun Shone on Cue

Monday, October 17, 2011

Rain Day Strategies

Mid October and the class actually showed up.  Sun was the forecast.  I never believe forecasts.  However, it started that way.

Sunny for Now

By the time I set up in the sun to keep everyone warm (9C), gave my handouts, got the experienced ones going, and began to demo, a fine mist started to come down.  That turned to a drizzle as I showed a 4 shape mass-in.  Getting the values correct turned out to be a demonstration in painting oil in the rain.  An interesting skill by itself.  And ditto for the coming snow.

Rain Bound Subject

I had talked about the difference between a sunny day producing shadows, and a heavy overcast day showing local colour and tone.  This strategy was chosen while listening to the forecast.  Contrarian.  Handouts covered to two situations.

A quick discussion about painting in the rain, and everyone scattered.

Dry, Not Warm and Cozy

A watercolourist insisted on bathing paintings in the downpour.  Heavy recovery required.  To my amazement everyone painted on.  Most were disappointed in the lack of colour.  The days of rain and wind had cleaned off a significant portion of the leaves.  I told them this was a good opportunity to paint the colour.  They didn't believe me.  Then as they settled in and started to see.......

Little Gem

A breakthrough work using a palette knife worked on this.

And the Rain Continued

Meanwhile, my setup showing local tone dripped and my paint box filled with water.  These close up positions help seeing the local tone by cutting down on the veil of rain.  But it is difficult seeing the masses for the uninitiated.  They did quite well in tough conditions in Belfountain.  Not to be forgotten.