Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Using Clear Spatial Planes

Afternoon Colors    9x12     oil on canvas panel.
It's a good idea to consider, at the very outset of designing a painting, what will be in the foreground, mid-ground and distance.  Not every painting will have all three, but understanding, upfront, how you will represent the illusion of space is a big help in planning your composition.  Also, the focal area of the painting must exist at some point in space, and that should not be ambiguous to the viewer.  These decisions simplify many problems and allow you to take better advantage of how you can unify the painting and lead the eye through it.

In my painting, "Afternoon Colors", I knew I would be placing the house in the mid-ground.  The flat plane of the water provides a foreground lead-in, but I placed the shrub in the lower left corner to clearly establish the spatial depth, and to direct the eye to the stairs in the wall, which is the eye-path into the mid-ground.

Just above the wall stairs is another stairway leading from the road and lawn up to the house, and the focal point of the painting.  Remember?  Everything points to the focal area.  In the deepest part of the mid-ground is the large tree which reaches over behind the house, and frames the view into the distance.

All of this was established in my mind before beginning the painting, freeing me to give my painting attention to making good shapes, putting down accurate values and color, and further assuring that everything points to the focal area, without confusion.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Everything Points To The Focal Area

Noonday Rest    9x12    0il
This is one of the paintings I did during the recent Plein Air competition in Marble Falls, Texas.  I'm going to use it to say a little about some of the things I was trying to apply from John Cosby's workshop. Too much to cover in this one post, but I'll touch on more points in following posts.  I do this as much for myself, as I do in hopes that it will be useful for some of you.  Organizing my thoughts about these things is one of the best ways to work them into my own habits.

When we're standing outside, confronting a scene that we're thinking of interpreting as a painting, it's a good idea to keep in mind that there's just way too much information provided in nature for us to possibly deal with.  We need to develop a kind of mental/visual filter that begins to focus on the one thing we want to say about the scene.  That's usually going to lead to identifying something that will become the focal area of the composition.  This is primary!  Before we begin to draw, arrange shapes, put down values, or mix color, we need to know what is the motive for doing this painting.  What is the one thing around which we're going to organize everything else?  If you do this, you stand a good chance of making a strong painting, and your compositional skills will grow with purpose.  Don't do it and you'll probably end up with confusion and nothing to hold the viewers attention.  Here's a related tip.  Once you've selected what will dominate the focus of the painting, don't bother painting anything that may draw attention away from it.  Leave it out!  And then, with what is to be included, don't bother painting anything you can't clearly distinguish when you're squinting at the scene. We're in the entertainment business, and every painting needs a star of the show, and a great supporting cast.

Enough said.  If you're interested in this approach, and would like some ideas about how you can apply it, then a picture can be worth a thousand words...if you know what you're looking for.  Please, examine my humble effort for how I applied this thinking.  Here's some hints:
What is the obvious focal area of this painting?
What makes it so obvious?
Where is the greatest contrast of dark and light in the painting?
Where are the hardest edges?
Where is the color brightest?
Where is the most detail?
Can you see how the surrounding lines and shapes work to point you to the focal area?
(hints: notice the stairway, the movement of the tree trunks, the directional flow of the light and dark shapes surrounding the focus)

You get the idea.  There are more things at work here that play up the focal area.  How can you use them in your own paintings?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Expert Instruction, Hard Work and Results!

Morning Reflection    9x12    oil
I've been out of the studio all of last week, attending a painting workshop with the great California plein air painter, John Cosby.  Take a look at his paintings and see his workshop information.  I highly recommend John's workshop to anyone who wants to push their plein air work to the next level. John does a demo painting at the beginning of each day to illustrate "the lesson for the day" and cumulatively through the week, to re-emphasize the important approach material in each demo.  John has the uncommon gift of being able to speak coherently and to the point about what he's doing and why, as he works his way through the demos.  You get to hear what's going on in the mind of a master painter as he confronts each situation.  I watched him confidently work through various inopportune painting conditions: continually changing light, working with his painting and palette in full sunlight (just so we could all see!), overly complicated subjects, and more.  Without complaining, he used each situation as a basis for teaching and came up with solid, beautiful results.

I took careful notes, set aside some old habits, and practiced the specific techniques he was teaching, although they were uncomfortable at first.

At the end of the week, I left to take part in a juried, invitational paintout competition with over fifty painters, in Marble Falls, Texas.  I arrived in time to do a painting late Friday afternoon, and two more on Saturday before the deadline at 4 p.m..  I intentionally held to the new techniques I had been learning, one of which was painting out of pre-mixed gray value pools that roughly approximate the local colors of the major simple shapes in the composition.  I also kept an awareness of the things John had been emphasizing throughout the week.  I'll be going over the things I learned, for you, in more detail in coming posts.

I was awarded second place, and sold two of my paintings in the public exhibition.  Very affirming experience, and lots of fun!

So, this painting is the one I did in the city park, Saturday morning, that won second place.  Very catchily titled, what else?, "Morning Reflection".  I'll be covering the things I learned, and some of the jewels of painting information that John points out.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Dominance, Contrast, Harmony, Unity, Variety..and all that

Rising Mist    9x12    oil
Here's one I actually feel pretty good about!  You study, you paint, you paint some more, you keep studying trying to internalize the things you know you're lacking, you paint some more, and then you get one that tells you you may be starting to get it!  I know there's so much wrong with the painting, but there are signs that I may be making progress.  Part of painting is learning to live with a continual sense of dissatisfaction with your results.  You're faced with either quitting or keeping on keeping on.  For me, I just have no idea what I'd do if I didn't keep on!

I'm not going to bore you with my own back-patting, but you've got to give yourself some of that now and then or it all just gets to be too much. Really, there's so much to manage if you're trying to get better, that you wonder how you're supposed to groc it all!  Well, you can't consciously get it all.  I think you have to keep working on the things you're aware of that could make it better, and one day it starts to creep into what you're doing when you least expect it.

Contrary to what we hear, practice does not make perfect!  You can make a lot of paintings without improvement, unless you're consciously trying to get hold of the things that go into a "good" painting.  The principles and elements of design are your best friends as you fight this battle.  If you have no idea where you're trying to go, you'll probably get nowhere you want to be.

Do you think about line, shape, direction, size, value, color, and texture in your paintings?  Each of these things can be manipulated by dominance, contrast, gradation, variety, harmony, unity and balance.  If you think about it, that makes 56 possible manipulations you could use to improve what you're trying to do.  Who can consciously manage all that, and still be spontaneous?!  I'm working on a few at a time, and hoping to see them work their way into my unconscious skill set.  Some of these things make this painting a satisfying step for me, and I want to go out and try again!


Somewhere In-between

Somewhere Creek    9x12     oil
I guess this continues the line of thinking from my last post in that it has to do with what I end up painting.  Going out into the landscape to paint from nature is the best catalyst I know of for figuring out what you want to do with paint.  It's overwhelming!  You have to develop ways of underwhelming it a bit.  There's just way too much going on to deal with it all.  We have to be selective.  Once we begin to get some things under control, we can expand our attention to the next challenges.

After developing tactics for dealing with wind, sunburn, insects, equipment, etc., we can focus on specific things we'd like to see happen in our art, better values, better color, better composition and so on.  Determination and persistence take us through the inevitable frustrations.  Sometimes I wonder how anybody comes back with anything at all.  Sometimes I see I'm learning some things, and that fuels my drive.

One of the biggest benefits I've gained from painting outdoors is the realization that we aren't hostages to what we see.  We take from the landscape the facts and effects that enable us to create something we feel.  The physical subject is a trigger for expressing the things we feel in terms of what we find beautiful.  What we come home with is something in-between the physical facts before us and the place our own imagination wants to go.  I think painting outdoors is really about learning how to get there more dependably, and bringing back more of what we found.  

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Paint What You Want To See!

Spring Patterns    9x12    oil
It took me a long time to get that into my head.  The composition, design or arrangement in a painting is not in front of us, waiting to be painted.  The information is there in nature ready to be exploited by our creative imagination.  The effects of light, color, shadows, the appearance of rocks, trees, water, ...whatever, is all there.  The scene may even suggest a composition that we choose to adapt, but we have to consciously arrange everything!  Music does not exist because we hear sounds.  Sound is the raw material which a skilled musician forms into harmonic intervals, rhythms, movements, melodies and so on.  In very few instances will we ever find a subject in nature that is "ready to go" as is.

While drawing skills are a wonderful tool for design, creating a painting is not primarily about rendering what we see.  Camera's do that, and have no soul!  Our job is to do everything we can to turn what is in front of us (behind us and beside us) into an entertaining visual arrangement on a two dimensional surface that expresses our awareness of beauty, emotion and life.

All that being said, I'm not going to break down what I moved, added, left out and exaggerated in my painting "Spring Patterns".  It's about the patterns I found out in the Spring landscape.  Oh, except for one thing.  Here, in Texas, we have Bluebonnets in the Spring.  There were none in the landscape before me.  I added their lovely blue notes as part of the Spring patterns I wanted to see in my painting.  Do you really care?


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Simple Solution For Featuring A Dominant Shape

Spring Hill    6x8    oil
This is one of the plein air studies I did this past weekend, near Johnson City.  This place is loaded with wonderful suggestions for landscape design.

My objective in this study was to create a design that would support my focal area (the tree grouping atop the hill).

I guess I could have just cropped-in to feature the trees as the dominant mass, but I wanted the feeling of their relationship to the rugged hill and the Bluebonnets in the meadow below.  So, I decided to create a larger pattern of darks than were actually in the scene by grouping more of the naturally occurring foliage. I included my focus trees as the dominant shape in that configuration.  If you just add a bunch of other unrelated filler shapes of foliage you end up with a scattered, busy pattern that doesn't support the main concept of your painting.  It helps to keep the light and dark patterns simple while reinforcing the dominant elements, like line, shape, direction, color, and texture.  I can see this one going to a larger painting.