Moving Away from Literal

After many, many years of painting I have found the paintings that have been the most successful are the ones where the actual subject was the spark and my imagination was the flame.

Often before starting I will sit down with paper and pen with the goal of getting to the core of why I want to paint this “thing”;

Design questions-

  • Does it exhibit any value patterns that have a wonderful rhythm?
  • What type of paint handling would make this subject really sing?
  • Is there an overall shape that is fascinating?

Emotional questions-

  • Does the subject have an expression that can be exagggerated to heighten the story?
  • What does this mean to me personally ?
  • What can I delete that is just distracting ?

When I finally arrive at my focus, I can start painting.

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My answers to these questions when I chose this image.

  • I’m going to take advantage of the shape of the girl and table as my interesting medium & light value pattern against everything else as dark.
  • More controlled paint handling, big smooth areas against small rough ones.
  • The shape of the girl attached to the table is the glue that holds this together.
  • There is a mood of extreme stillness, am going to use all my horizontal and vertical lines as strongly as possible.
  • This was a daughter of a friend, borrowing her mom’s wedding dress for the photo. Her personality was anything but Victorian and was feeling ill at ease in this dress. So there was a kind of tension at the time which I’d like to express.
  • Don’t like the potted plant, the murky green of the top half or the red carpet, note to self, push everything to the cool side, get rid of that plant!

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As you can see I painted this over another painting, sanded first, to remove any high spots.

The best way to start is going right for the key area, the large shape made by the girl and the table cloth. I’ve found that expressing what I want to say , ( not the literal photo reference), correctly, leads me to the next part and the next, etc.

Roughing things out loosely seems a waste of time, nothing is the right color, shape or place, how does this help? Better to get a few things nailed down, than work out from that point. After the important statement is made, you might be surprised how how little else needs to be said, I’m talking about useless details. Spend 90% of your time on 40% of the painting, it can free you up to experiment more!

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Here is the finished painting “Two Worlds”.

3 Ways to Energize Your Painting

Running a cash register, practicing scales on a piano or . . . painting. Doing anything over and over for a long period of time can lead to boredom. When you are bored while painting, your audience will also be bored when they look at it. Yes, complacency blows the spark out. On the flip side, when you are invested and mesmerized by what you’re working on, it can’t help but permeate into your work.

When I find myself in this comatose state here are three things to try:

1. Start a painting with no preplanning. I know after years of talking about value plans, color sketches and dynamic symmetry grids have I lost it? No, if you have been doing this preliminary work, good for you. It’s all part of the virtual tool box in your head, now give it a test. Start with a subject, grab a charcoal or paint brush and get it down, shape by shape. Not sure about the color? Get it on there, stop every 30 minutes of so, evaluate, make adjustments and go on.

2. Start a new painting on top of an old one. When beginning a painting on a white canvas it can be hours until something exciting emerges. Using a old painting as your underpainting is like a head start. Don’t dwell on which one to use for the new subject, those colors that don’t exist in the new subject could be just what it needs. Below are two old paintings, with the beginnings of a new one.

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3. Be patient with your next painting. I like to work on two or three paintings at once. This is a great way to not rush toward “finishing” a painting. As I get tired or, god forbid, bored, with a painting, I turn it to the wall, pulling it out in a couple days. What’s the rush anyway? There are very few fantastic paintings that are rushed right through, beginning to end. I ask myself “what does it need, to be it’s best self?” It may be, I need to get rid of something, too many values, or colors. Training your eye, getting away from it helps to depersonalize. Pretend someone else painted this and asked you what to do next? The painting below took many sessions of minor adjustments that just couldn’t have been banged out in a couple days. Would you rather have a few successful paintings that took some time and patience or a closet full of “just good enough” ones.slowlight-lr

Up Close at the Met

Last week John and I where in New York City for the American Impressionist Society 20th National Art Show opening.

We signed up for a list of demonstrations, lectures and tours. On the second day we found ourselves with 1 1/2 hours of free time, of course we had to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park.

But what do you do with only a short time in a museum that would take a week to see? I headed right for the American Painters. John Singer Sargent, Robert Henri, Mary Cassatt, George Bellows. . .this is where I can really get inspired.

Standing in front of this enormous Sargent painting of The Wyndham Sisters took my breath away but looking up close was even more spellbinding.

In this detail from the lady in the center you can see the confidently placed, few brushstrokes that rendered the sparkling pearls and jewelry.

Mrs. Hugh Hammersley by John Singer Sargent

A wonderful staccato of brushwork to make up a seemingly complicated lace collar.

Rendered so freshly, no overworking here. . .

A totally different genre, Frederick Remington’s On The Southern Plains.

Just look at the simplicity of those faces, horse and riders! Simplicity that only comes after a lifetime of study and painting.

Even the prairie grass and shadows have a rhythmic direction in the strokes.

Fluer de Lis by Robert Reid

One of my favorite American Impressionists, what a wonderfully delicate, yet textural way he rendered that face and those hands.

James Jebusa Shannon, Jungle Tales

Look at those faces, not a hard edge to be found.

It’s so inspiring to see the work of those masters that have come before us. There really is no “right way” to paint, whatever it takes to get the end result.

I was reading something the other day directed at painters that said, “art doesn’t happen in nature, it happens in our head”.

 

What makes the “right” frame?

Several years ago I went to an unusual event. Models were hired by a local photography studio, and all those who had a digital SLR camera could take pictures for a price.

Ten or so of us stood in line for our turn at five minutes with the model. This meant directing her while using the props and strobe lights that were available in the space.

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This young woman stood out with her pink dreadlocks/shaved head hair style, heavy makeup and cartoon tattoos . I sensed that under all the distractions there was a whole other girl, so that’s the girl that I painted.

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For a long time this was the frame on the painting. When I took it out the other day it was clear this was not a good choice. Why?

These are the things I look at now when choosing a frame;

-What is the dominant temperature? Warm, which the gold frame is . . however

-What is the largest area of color (or dominant color), medium size color, accent color? Dark brown, orange and gold, some blues (in order). This is the problem

By putting a gold frame on this, it is adding way more gold to the overall image, making gold no longer an accent in the piece, and throwing the balance in the painting off.

Also the bright gold next to the dark background makes it hard to see the subtle darks, the eye just can’t get past the jarring move from light gold frame to dark background.

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My husband John made this frame for her that is so much better. This ebonized Red Oak, dark wood frame enhances the colors in the background, while the nail head trim matches the edginess of the subject.

The next time you choose a frame, ask yourself if it continues with the balance you’ve developed, being a supporting cast member, or is it screaming for attention over your subject.

 

 

One Subject, Two Times

Have you ever painted a subject, only to end up with something that was almost there…but not quite?

This is one of those subjects.

What was it that made me want to paint this scene of a young woman in an 18th century dress?

  • The idea of a traditional subject painted in a contemporary way intrigued me.
  • The possibilities of a strong design, with the tall vertical girl pushing horizontally into the large dark space to the left.
  • The colors, I’m always drawn to blues, greens and violets.

The first painting seen belowUnknownFinalImagelr

I like the division of space into a variety of shapes. I like the background texture; but is it too different from the subject. The girl  has very linear strokes and marks, the background more gauze like. The colors in the background are too warm on the left and too pink on the right. Which means they don’t relate to the girl. So there is a kind of disconnect here.

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Looking at a painting in grey scale (black and white), always helps me to see why things didn’t work out.

What I want to see are dark areas that are connected. As you can see in the skirt area, they are too scattered, while the dark shape of the bottom of her hair is too isolated from the other darks. It doesn’t matter if this is how it really looked, it is our job to change things to make a better visual statement.

The light areas should be around the center of interest, her face, and they are, but the shapes just aren’t interesting enough.

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In this painting by John Singer Sargent notice how the darks are connected and hold together across the painting, he was a master of value control.

The final version below-Unknownfinal2019-lr

This version is more of what I was looking for. The background shares tints, tones and shades of the blues, greens and violets of the dress in both the lighter right side and darker left side.Unknowngrey2019-lr

In this grey scale of the painting the darks are a solid shape on the left with an interesting edge as it meets the tall vertical of the girl. The lights are also more interesting and descriptive.

It took a year and a half to realize what needed to be done, be patient, your eye will tell you what to do eventually,

 

 

Creating a Character

This is a painting blog, so you might wonder what a sewing tutorial is doing here.  Part of the back story of my paintings, is creating reference photos that inspire me. And the back story to creating interesting reference, is crafting the settings which include the costumes.

When I say costume, it’s more about building a time and place instead of “playing dress-up”.

We don’t need access to the prop department at MGM Studios to come up with character pieces, after all we are creatives…right?

About a month ago a friend offered me this dress after it didn’t sell at her garage sale.dresss

At the time I saw the potential in it, but wasn’t sure what it was. One evening while scanning Pinterest for ideas an image sparked the direction to go.

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Pinterest image

A pair of scissors quickly severed the glittery top half from the voluptuous bottom half.

Examining the inside structure I saw there was a lining and, bonus, black netting I can expose as more texture! The lining will make a solid base for the tucks. I experimented with how much tuck to take by measuring down from the inside lining center front 8″ and marking with a pin. Going around the lining I placed pins at this same measure at the side seams and center back.

Than I measured down on the skirt center front outside, sides and center back 20″ down and marked with pins.

Next I brought the outside pins upward until they met up with the inside pins and joined the outer skirt with the lining at these points with pins. This measure gave some nice heavy tucks so I sewed skirt to lining where they were pinned with a 1″ join.sewtucks

I made a second layer of tucks doing the same thing, going down on the lining and marking, than going further with the outside fabric (so that tucks would form), and attached outer skirt to lining by sewing.

This whole process took about an hour. The last thing to deal with was the back closure. Since the original dress had a zipper going all the way up and partially down to the skirt section, my cutting off the top left the zipper inoperable. The answer here was sewing a simple fabric extension to the back with Velcro as a fastener. Velcro is the best solution because it’s easy to sew on and it enables the skirt to fit a variety of waist sizes.IMG_1973

Give reworking something a try, it doesn’t need to be perfect, it doesn’t even have to be wearable for more than 10 minutes.

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After

Next month I will be teaching  “The Costumed Figure Bootcamp”,  at Scottsdale Artists School, May 13-14. Sewing won’t be a part of it but creating scenes, posing models choosing themes and painting from inspiring reference photos will be the focus.

 

Simplify and Exaggerate

BalletcropblogThis is a image I’ve had for at least seven years, in fact it was painted once before.

It’s fun to come back and see how your eye for design has changed. The first time around I saw it as ; lacking color contrast (in the flesh tones) and having a weak composition.

The key is to simplify and exaggerate. Keying in on the simple shapes means grouping things together, even if they don’t look like anything, that might be alright or they may morph into something that is recognizable later.blog-shoe1

I chose a square format and starting with anchoring dark shapes to the top and bottom,  focusing on a triangular design. It’s always good to have the center of interest attached to  an edge so that it doesn’t appear to float in the space.blo-shoe2

At this point it’s more about deciphering the light condition. This took place in a large rehearsal room with lots of overhead lights plus more light coming in large windows. No wonder things appeared washed-out, but looking closer reveals how the light is showing the form, like on the top plane of her back.

All that clutter on the right is reduced to a violet patch of color. blog-shoe3

Here, all the areas have been generally massed in and decisions need to be made.

  • First, do I want to bring back some of the information in the background? Yes, it will help with the story to give some clues about her surroundings.
  • Is there anything that doesn’t help the story or composition? Yes, her distant arm bend is a tangent with the foreground hand and shoe she’s holding. Speaking of the shoe, it doesn’t read well as a shoe, could I edit the shape to make it more shoe like?blog-shoe4

I like that arm outstretched more, plus the shoe and distant ballet information simplified!

 

 

Recent Photo Shoot

I always get excited to procure a new group of photo references. A generous friend with an antique/gift shop in downtown Scottsdale agreed to lend me her store as a backdrop. I found a lovely model and the rest was magic.

Even though the store is in a commercial setting, the landscaped front with paths, trees and bushes lent theirselves to a wooded scene.

The first step is always a small sketch. The goals are

  • To “get to know” the subject. Find out where might I have some trouble, where might I simplify? (Pay attention to the angle on the face, and the upper body twist to the lower body)
  • To figure out the simple three value, pattern, in order to lead the eye (use the bits of light on her and the foliage to lead the eye)
  • To find out what I want to emphasize (her head and hands)Hatthumbnail

Next the small color study. I’ve heard people say “why do a small version of the painting, just to do it again larger”.

My answer is, it’s a way to experiment with some color directions that are not necessarily in the original image, but could be more exciting. I much rather “play” on a 4″x6″ piece of canvas than try something on the 12″x 22″ only to scrape it off when it doesn’t look right. hatSketch

This little sketch has answered some questions for me;

Will a warm underpainting benefit this image (yes)

How can I organize the image into warm against cool? There is lots of room for fine-tuning and what I like to call “color runs”. A color run is a transition of colors of the same value but different hues, like in her shirt, going from warm blues to cool blues to pinks and violets.BeneathTheTreeslr

You can see how the colors got more complex in the final version. The skirt for example ended up with many more color notes as did the foreground foliage. The small color sketch just gave me a jumping off point.

 

Henry Yan Workshop

Even though I wasn’t looking for a book on charcoal drawing, there it was on Amazon, and I had to have it. Henry Yan’s Figure Drawing Techniques and Tips.

Every page a visual delight of etherial draftsmanship. His figures have a poetic quality, airy yet solid, rendered with anatomical precision.

Now, five years later I was thrilled to have the opportunity to study with him for a week at the Scottsdale Artists School.img_1690Above, Henry demonstrates basic structures of figure drawing.

Every morning began with half an hour of quick gesture sketches from models, than we were off and running on a long pose. Each day had a special focus, for instance on the first day we were concerned with finding an accurate edge around the figure to build on. Using different line weights as well as overlapping we mapped where muscles and forms moved forward and backward in space to show the perspective of the figure.img_1683

This was Henry’s quick drawings on the second day illustrating how line, soft and hard can show form. I just loved the energy in these sketches so I bought this page from his sketch book.

We worked up to his method of using a charcoal pencil rendering light lines to get the outer edges and inner shadow shapes on cotton drawing paper.  Using a vine charcoal we blocked in the shadows very dark as well as the shadow side of the background.

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Another page of Henry’s quick sketches, 5 minutes each.

Using a soft chamois swiping the loose charcoal inward toward the figure, following the forms. From there it was a matter of getting more information in the darks as well as lights, than finishing with eraser highlights.

It was a wonderful week of seeing new ways to use tools I had been familiar with for decades. The next day I attended open studio to put some of these concepts into practice. I still need to get a lighter touch, and more time, that clock always runs out too soon!img_1695

Transforming a Subject

I’ve talked before about painting what you would like to see instead of what you are looking at. In other words, most subjects can be improved, and it’s up to us, the artist, to make the most of it.

But how do you get from point A to point B? Over the years I’ve come up with several techniques to open up the possiblities.

Here’s  my original reference trix1-blog

Coming to grips with what interested you in the subject to begin with is a good place to start. These are the things that you want to hold on to. My list was:

  • Her eclectic outfit
  • The way the light falls on her
  • Her gesture, carefree and confident
  • The triangle shape that her body makes
  • The white, lime green and dark blue

Ok, now what I don’t like, these are what I will lose:

  • The colors in the background, dark red, gold
  • The stuff in the background and foreground
  • Hard to read areas like her right sleeve falling over her leg and her hands showing under her leg
  • Not sure about the pattern on the ottoman yet

I want to dive in and really get to know the subject, the best way to do this is a drawing, yes, just a piece of paper a pencil and eraser. Moving from shape to shape, with these simple tools the rhythm reveals itself. Where the values should go lighter and darker. If I eliminated some of the background stuff, what simple shape would work to lead the eye around the image. What simple lines would make her expression what I want it to be?sketch

These simple drawings are were I start to get excited about what the painting could be.

Determining a solid composition is next. Using a piece of paper (which serves as white), two felt markers, one black, one midtone grey. It’s time to play with these three values in order to nail down something cohesive. A time saver is to lay tracing paper over the above drawing and mass in the value shapes. Do several of these to expand the possibilities.blockIn

You might say, “fine that works with black white and grey, but how does this translate to full color paint?”.

It’s about getting control of the values. Everything that’s reading as white here can be lots of different colors but all in a very close, light value range. The same with the grey in the background. It’s in these midtones where intense color can happen, lots of colors, all kept in the same value range.

I’m still open to change things as the painting developes, but this has freed me from the confines of the actual subject.firsttixlrThis is what I came up with. You can see I used some things from the value sketch like keeping her all light value except the scarf and a few accent darks. I used a vertical division in the background though not exactly what I had in the sketch. The point is all these steps help to open up what you might want to try. Of course there is the feeling that you want the thing to have, that can also drive your decisions.

There were two things that kept bothering me about the image above. One was she was not solidly anchored to the side. The other was she appeared to be floating because the value of her seat was too dark. So as one thing is changed, the painting tells me what I should do next.StarryNightlrWhen I anchored her with a mid value blue, the horizontal blue stripe higher was too much. She needed a softer expression and more warmth with a red violet.

She’s finally what I want her to be.