How to Simplify a Complex Subject

Simplify, simplify, simplify, you’ve heard it a hundred times, but how do you really do it?

I’m going to walk through a recent painting showing the steps I went through to make it easier for me to paint.

Here is the original image. 

I liked the gesture of her putting on a shoe, also the lighting was interesting. But the photo was taken on a stage with all sorts of things in the background that had nothing to do with her. It needed to go someplace else. O.K. she’s in her closet, packed with dresses, and shoes, lots of shoes, on the floor and in boxes. Now I’ve got something to run with.

Even though this may seem like a lot of stuff, I’m organizing it into  three big shapes, the simplify.

So first the initial drawing, it doesn’t need to show everything but it does need to be accurate.

Now is the the time to revisit those big shapes, which are:

• The girl, her seat and the floor (shape 1)

* All the clothes, the wall and the shoes (shape 2)

• The stack of boxes (shape 3)

So how  am I going to hold them together?

• Shape 1, this shape will contain the darkest darks, the lightest lights and the most intense color. All those things add up to the most important shape, nothing else will be allowed to upstage this shape.

• Shape 2, this shape will fall into a medium value of muted warm tones.

• Shape 3, this shape will also be midtones with muted colors used in shape 1.

In the image above I layed in a flat tone behind the girl so I could better judge my values. Here I have roughed in the girl, and the floor, just the big important shapes, keeping in mind how I want to hold her together. Yes, there is a lot more information within her that I could paint, but I have to force myself to move on. Some of things like strands of hair that I really like, may not even be necessary in the final painting, focusing on the whole instead of the parts, simplifies.

Generalizing shape #2, mixing several tones next to each other on my palette really helps to keep these close in value and saturation while getting a variety of reddish, yellowish and blueish tones. Working from the most obvious shapes to the more subtle, knowing the ones near her face should be more interesting. Some of this may stay untouched for the rest of the painting, some may be redone, but I’m working on getting a base here to work with. Next on to shape #3 the boxes.

Everything is massed in now, it’s time to take a hard look at how things are fitting together. I see I will need to adjust the color on the boxes to harmonize more. It’s like a song, there is a high note and a low note. I have already established the warm and cool extremes, so I see some “off” notes like the orange box and the orangey red box.

The design is holding together, which is the priority, so I will go in and adjust everything with an eye on the whole, taking care to not have the big shapes fall apart.

Having a plan and limitations for each area gives me the freedom to express what’s there, it’s having no limitations that will give me brain freeze, just too many options!

As I paint some things may change, it’s always good to be open to something you never even considered.

Final painting “Her Happy Place”

The Subject, and Your Options

At some time or another we’ve all been stuck in the rut of just trying to reproduce the subject with paint. This is what I call “literal painting”.

So why is this a bad thing? It can become stiff and lifeless, because what’s missing is you. The fact is you have options. Options to interpret the subject differently, through your eyes, emphasizing the things that are important to you.

Below is an example of a recent subject-jenBlog1

The literal;

A young attractive woman in an interesting pose with jewelry and a floral print dress. Everything is medium to high key except her hair which is dark.

How could I interpret this differently? At first this may seem daunting, after all how can I paint something that isn’t there. “I can’t just pull something out of the air”. Here’s where it gets really personal… because ten people may answer the questions below ten different ways.

  • First think about why you want to paint this subject, why did you decide on this particular one?  I like the mysterious mood, almost dangerous.
  • What parts of the image showcase this idea the most? The uplighting and the way the hands interact with her face.

So how does this translate into paint? With manipulations, yes manipulations. Taking what is already there in the subject, and pushing it in a new direction.

Color: is a big one since it can set the overall tone in a painting. What I’m looking at in the image is warm yellowish to rosy tones. Changing this to a greenish color world would change the subject to my mysterious mood. This is not as difficult as it may seem. Realizing where the dark medium and light values are, you begin pushing it all toward green. One trick that can help with this is to paint from a grey scale version of the subject. Or take the image through a photo editing program like Photoshop and push the color in another direction.

Cropping: get to the point, zero in on what’s important to you.

Value: the high key aspect of my subject is not helping my story, pushing it darker does.

Paint application: careful strokes with small brushes, explaining every element in detail is not part of my story. Large strokes, some harsh, some like transparent veils, speaks to the emotions I have about the subject.

One way to get better at seeing your options is to start looking at work by artists you admire and deconstructing their paintings. What might have they been really looking at? How have they expressed emotion through color, cropping, value and paint application.

Jennlr

 

 

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

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.

 

 

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.

 

One Painting beginning to End, part III

In the last post of this three part blog we talked about using the grid and the importance of a color study.

When ready to paint my set-up is; have my original thumbnail value sketch on the wall infront of me, have the color study next to the painting. As the painting progresses they will become more important while the original subject becomes less.

Taping a piece of clear acetate over the study makes it easy to try out mixtures right on the little painting.

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Below is my palette for the study, yes I take a picture of it. The intention is to start the larger version right away but….the air conditioning breaks down in July, or unexpected guests come to stay….all kinds of things can happen, and I don’t want to rethink everything again.

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Notice how I hold the value groups together. This is how I think when painting, so my palette should reflect this. If there is chaos and discourse on the palette, so the painting follows. Note; on the larger painting, there will be three times this much paint, not different colors but the volume of it.

From left to right; Hansa Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Scarlet, White, Olive Green, Thalo Green, Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin, Burnt Sienna, Magenta, Black, and Oleopasto medium.

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The numbers signify the order of the areas painted. I start with the darkest darks, it’s easy to go too dark which makes the colors dull and unreadable. Mixtures of Thalo Green plus blue or yellow ochre applied with a palette knife.

After the darkest darks on to the lightest lights, the sunlit orange area. As in the other area not being too dark, this area shouldn’t be too light, or again I lose color identity. My question ; how dark can I go and still read as light, this has been answered in the study so I take my cue from there. So the key has been set for the painting, just like the highest and lowest note in a song. Everything will fit within the established boundaries of lightest and warmest area vs. the darkest coolest area.

The area #4 is easy, just compare it in temperature and value to the two neighboring areas. This is how I paint, relationships, sometimes there is an underpainting tone, but always about one area reacting to another.

Notice how the figure is established only after the background? Because this is the world she lives in, the air she breaths. So many times a painting suffers from “stuck on figure” syndrome. The figure is taken almost to completion than a background fills in around it without a lot of thought concerning the give and take between figure and background.

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This is what I call the “last look”. What can elevate this, what is taking away from the whole?. My written list of tasks is on the right. Sorry, it’s hard to read because I scratched through them as completed. Here’s what I wrote:

  • Greenery lower right in shadow – work some leaf shapes into the light, creating steps like in the study.
  • Three rocks, change shape and or color, too much unity.
  • Ankle crossing over, try taking out light bit.
  • Fill in grass lower edge, paint too thin.
  • Work warm greenery in sun, more foliage shape and description.
  • Green area above her head more warmth
  • Put pattern on dress

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And done.

 

Painting Blue Light

Lately I’ve been setting up random objects that have a commonality. It crossed my mind that colored light might bring several items together in a different way.

Shopping around, I found Ace Hardware had a blue LED that would work perfectly.IMG_0608

Reflection and blue light were the ideas I wanted to pull together. The white flower and silver canister made a good vehicle to showcase the blue light, while the patterned cloth showcased the reflective metal.

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This photo really exaggerates the blue, it wasn’t this intense. That’s why painting from life is so important, your eye can’t be fooled like the camera.

Because the values of light to dark are so close in this scene, a value sketch to get things organized was the first step.

Value-sketch

The goal here was to divide up all the areas, assigning either dark, medium or light value to each.

The flower “could” be the most difficult area to paint since it appears to have dark, medium and light in it. And it does, but those darks, mediums and lights must hold together as a light shape so that it doesn’t get fragmented.

Another area, the pattern, could be trouble, but I’m going to push it into mid value.

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At this point, the initial lay-in is holding together the way I had envisioned. This is where it really gets fun because I can go in with different temperatures, play with edges, do whatever I want as long as I don’t step out of the value boundaries I set for myself.

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The blue light was very deceptive, the areas it hit most seemed to be much lighter, but in reality these areas were a different color not value. This was a great exercise in observation.

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And the final-

 

 

How to Paint Nothing

Something, is a big vase of colorful flowers on a patterned table-cloth. A hand full of fruit and a cup of tea thrown in for good measure.

Nothing, is a smooth white surface with a clear jar of water, a transparent shot glass and a silver bucket.

If you want to hone you skills at seeing value better, this is the subject for you. Creating cardboard grey value scales can be tedious, so why not paint a setup that tricks you into training your eye?

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I painted this from life, which is the only way to see the nuances of what really light does. I chose these three object because they had visual characteristics in common.

  • All are tallish cylinders
  • All lack saturated color, except the bit of orange inside the bucket, it’s always good to throw off consistency a little.
  • All have reflective surfaces.

My goal : to showcase the commonalities between them while giving each a distinct personality.

I started on a Baltic birch wood panel primed with toned gesso, I spent plenty of time on the drawing, no details, just making sure things were placed and sized correctly.

The painting started with getting the value of the darkest dark in the bucket. Than the orangish tone, along with the background behind it. There is no way to know how dull or bright to make this without the background tone. Too often these areas are left until late in the painting. The background and foreground set the whole key for what’s placed on them.

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Moving around  I make my best guess as to what the color shapes are. When everything is basically roughed in I go back for another pass, slowing down, making refinements (corrections), to my original guesses. When a few things get nailed down, the rest comes much easier.NothingBlog2.jpg

At this point I look long and hard to see what needs to go away and what needs to be added. The bucket on the right needs the handle, the top and bottom edges need some reworking. The wall behind the items needs more paint and a little more color.NothingBlog5.jpg

And here’s the finish-

Repurposed Paintings

After painting for awhile, we all have them. . . the stack of paintings, that won’t go away. There are small victories in certain areas, but the war was not won. They don’t warrant displaying, even in our own homes.

The best answer I’ve found to finally put them to rest, is making use of them, a repurpose paint-over. Here’s how I go about it:

  1. It’s easiest to select an old painting that is dominantly light to midtown in value. Darker paintings can be more difficult but intersting because initial lines don’t show up, using a grey mix of Ivory Black and White will work.
  2. Flip the painting upside down, which throws the original subject into abstraction, making it less distracting as the new painting takes form.
  3. Get some initial lay-in lines down, the general placement of things, too many lines promote confusion.
  4. Begin blocking in the large masses with paint and turpentine using large brushes. Blog-repurpose1

In the lower third of this paint-over you can still make out the original portrait flipped upside down. I have massed in the large shapes, paying attention to the values as they relate to one another. An old painting is such a nice surface to work on, it is essentially an oil primed canvas. blog-repurpose2

There were some heavy paint areas in the original, resulting in some raised brush work, this serves as a challenge to paint even heavier so I can work them in.Blog-final-large

The final image, notice I left some of the violet from the original painting. Allowing the old painting to show through can make the new work richer.

 

Let There Be Light!

It has taken me eight months, since we moved to Phoenix, to get my studio in order.

It’s not s huge space as art studios go, but I have managed to divide the space into “zones” for easy work flow. An area to gesso and varnish, and area to work on my laptop and draw and the most important of all, the area to paint.

The last thing to tackle was my lighting. Up to this point I have been experimenting with different bulbs in the existing ceiling fan; too dull, not enough coverage, spot lights on tripods; too strong with excessive glare, and did I mention tripping over tripods?

I’ve finally came to the conclusion that I should steal John’s idea of using long LED lights in his wood shop.

These lights are available, special order from Rockler Woodworking, and they put out a wonderful stream of  5500 lumens of bright light with no shadowing.IMG_2668

John installed two, one on each side of the room. These lights are surface mount so John installed them as close as he could to the ceiling. IMG_2669

Because of previous remodels to this house, there was no way John could run any electrical inside the walls, so he tapped into an existing outlet, which the previous owner used for a wall mounted TV. Running the wires inside surface moulding, up to the ceiling than across to an electrical outlet he mounted on the ceiling. IMG_2671

Both light fixtures plugged into this outlet on the ceiling. Both lights can be turned on at the switch on the wall or turned on individually by the pull chains.

 

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Light over my easel area-

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Light over table area-

The whole project came in at under $250. (free labor), which was well worth it.