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”.

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,

 

 

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!

 

 

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.

 

One Painting Beginning to End, part II

In the previous post I explained how I begin a painting. Selecting a subject, manipulating and enhancing it, than finally using the dynamic symmetry grid.

When it comes to painting, usually I shy away from mechanical tools but I’ve found the grid to be flexible and very helpful.

Used by the Old Masters to the Impressionists, it’s like having an artist friend with a great eye for composition. 3crops.blog

Each space within the grid has a harmony within the whole and where multiple lines overlap “eyes” form which are prime places for important elements.

In the image above left (the one I ended up choosing), you can see how her left arm lines up, so does the top of her hat and the bottom of the tree foliage. Her straight foot ends at a line while her other leg followed the angle of another. Things can also be pushed and pulled to fall better. For instance I changed the angle of the shadow under the tree to conform more to the diagonal line of the grid.

The version in the center and right would have also worked, but with these,  more information would have to be added on the left side.

The next thing I like to do is create a small color study. Up until a few years ago this seemed like a waste of time to me. Why paint a miniature version of my painting?blog.colorstudy

I’ve since realized the terrific value in these little jewels. As artists we are not copying what we see but transforming it into our vision. This takes experimental thinking.

It can be very disheartening to scrape off large areas of your painting because it doesn’t harmonize or has the wrong value. Enough changing around of things on a large painting ends up looking forced and overworked, anything but fresh.

In the color study above I set the value range, decided the temperature extremes and began to get more excited when seeing my vision in paint.

When I paint the larger version there’s still lots of room to “try some things out”, but within an established frame work it’s much more fun!

 

Harmony Through Limited Color

Workshops, friendly suggestions, something that caught my eye at the art supply store; all of these contribute to an overextended, bloated palette of colors. It can be a waste of time working this way. Like weeding through a stuffed closet of clothes in the morning, making too many choices is tiring.

At times like these I go back to the limited palette, like a breath of fresh air it clears my head so I can focus on the important aspects of creating a painting.

The Zorn Palette, made famous by the Swedish 19th century artist Anders Zorn is one of my favorites. ZornPalette-lr

Yellow Ochre, Scarlet Lake (he used Vermillion), White, Ivory Black. Here I’ve separated the warms from the cools with white. This selection leans toward the warm side, having two warms and only one cool, which is useful because most paintings need warmth to give them life. But they do look a little lonely…ZornPalette-blog2

By mixing neighboring colors together, warms with cools and white, the palette is beginning to open up. These are not all the possibilities by any means, but it gives me a jumping off point.IMG_0659

I set this subject up in my studio, experimented with the lightly and elements until they worked together. The things I look for when putting something like this together are:

  1. Focusing on a “star”, one item that the painting is about.
  2. Other elements that visually or physically flow to the star, and around the picture plane, (the composition)
  3. A variety of angles and curves
  4. A variety of values; dark, medium and light
  5. A variety of textures, smooth, rough, etc.
  6. A dominant color, (usually the “star”)

Notice how color is the last consideration? Sometimes we get sidetracked into thinking that “it’s all about the color”, but if the first five on the list aren’t there, no amount of color will save a painting with a weak design.

Now that the preliminaries are ironed out, the next step is the actual painting which I’ll talk about in my next blog.

Making an Entrance…

A sweeping staircase, a crystal lit foyer, open iron gates or a cobblestone walkway would be great, unfortunately many times we’re left standing on the curb with no path to the front door.

A painting can leave you with that same feeling, you want to get in but enthusiasm is lost trying to figure it out.

Here are some examples of welcoming  entrances –

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Miss Helen Duinham, John Singer Sargent

 

 

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Breezy Day, Zhaoming Wu
Asarolr
John Asaro
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Home Fields, John Singer Sargent
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Vincent Van Gogh
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Drying Out, Lori Putnam

Usually the most effective way to enter a painting seems to be-

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I’ve found taking a photo of the subject with my phone, than making a quick cropping makes it easier to visualize the best place to cut off the bottom for a good design lead in,  especially helpful when working from life.

Here is a subject I recently painted, and how I decided to crop it.irenelr
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I began blocking this in from the bottom up. It’s tempting to start with the area of most interest, the head, and work down from there, but too many times I have been left with awkward shapes at the bottom, spending way too much time trying to “make it work”.

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Latin Influence, Diane Eugster

Summer, Revisited

Have you ever finished a painting you were happy with only to find that months, weeks or even days later there are some serious problem areas. Summer Breeze is such a painting.

This painting is a little larger than I usually work, 20″ x 30″, but after two weeks of planning and execution it was finished. There were many things that worked out well, OldSummerBreeze-lr

The gesture of the pose, the expression of her face, the sense of light, but as she sat on my fireplace mantle for several days I started to “feel” there were some areas that needed addressing. It was a “feeling” at first because I couldn’t pin it down enough to do something about it, and I will never go back to rework a painting unless I have a specific change in mind. Enough days had passed, it became crystal clear what was required.

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At #1, the strongest shape in the scene. It is very strong because it’s surrounded by dark, is large and is pointing to the left, drawing way to much attention to an area that is secondary,

The shape at #2 is bothersome because it appears to be the same value as the top plane of the skirt, which is the way the photo appeared because of the tendency for photos to blow out the lights. In reality this area would be darker than the upper plane which is receiving more light.

At #3 and 4#, these light shapes take away from the solid anchoring effect of the dark shadow along the bottom and add more attention to an area that shouldn’t receive any.

 

 

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At #5 I could add a little more information to follow the form of her body and make it more interesting.

All during the painting process I wrestled with that rectangle #6,  behind her head. Should I keep it or not. Now I can see, not, it adds a visual weight to the top of her head, which throws her a little off balance.

At #7, stream line her shoulder a little here to soft her.

The lower shadow area #8, could be working harder to stabilize the balance. I want it to create a more solid base for the figure. Even though there was not a supporting leg on the bench in the photo, it was needed to alleviate the floating sensation in this area.

Last but not least, the color needed adjusting. More warmth in the background wall, as well as in her skirt.

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I was happy with the changes and glad I made them. It’s never too late to go back and make things better!

Respecting Your Boundaries

The real world and a painting are two totally different things.

You’re standing in front of the model, here lovely Marisa. Interesting costume, nice pose, that rug with the oriental design is great, what a wonderful group of objects by her feet, all shiny and shimmery…

You’ve been there before, you want to paint it all but….you are limited…..by your boundaries, the canvas. Those four edges restricting the world you can paint.

On a recent open studio session at SAS this is how I made those decisions.

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I wanted to paint those silver vessels on the floor, I wanted to paint her shoes, but…Reclinelr1

more importantly I based my composition on how small I was willing to make the head and where on the canvas  boundary to place it comfortably, not too high, too low, too near the edge.

What I didn’t concern myself with yet was the actual color, bright green and magenta. Instead getting neutral value blocks in that filled the space well was what I was after.reclinglr2

Here I was thinking, how is the visual information going to enter my boundaries, how comfortable is it to explore the scene leading to her face? What I gave up was her legs and shoes, too much information where I don’t want you to look. The bright green and magenta just didn’t matter anymore.reclinelr3

Now that “things” are basically the way I want them, what is fighting my original intent? The dark edge next to her uplifted hand in the previous image was causing a tension, pushing against her, so it’s eliminated here. Also the dark shape in the lower area of her dress was distracting.relinlrfinal

This is where it really gets fun, adding pattern, textures, refining her expression…and knowing when to stop!

Order From Chaos

girlingardenlrHave you ever held onto an image in hopes of painting it one day, you pass over it periodically but always end up choosing something else.

This is one of those images. Why did I want to paint it? I liked the mood of stems and leaves going in all directions while the girl, among the chaos pumped water from an old iron pump. What kept holding me back was my perception of its complexity.

I decided it was time to paint it or discard it, so the struggle began, but with a happy ending.

Here are some of the “tricks”, methods I used in order to make this scene paintable to me.

Before starting I searched for the patterns that would make the best eye path through the scene.girlingarden1Studying the foliage I could see how using some of the longest stems to lead upward around and down would make a good composition.

Omitting a bright area of sky in the upper left helped to direct the interest into the central part of the scene instead of up and out the corner.

After the face was established I used stripes of paper to mask off areas so I could concentrate on others, it felt less overwhelming and helped me to actually see what was going on.

When I felt painters’ fatigue creeping in I even set my phone on a 15 minute timer. Every time the alarm went off I turned the painting and photo a quarter turn. Working on it upside down and sideways offered a new perspective and freed my mind up to just think shapes instead of objects.

The more I finished the easier it was to continue with the remainder, until it seemed I said all I wanted to say about this scene.