Words from the Wise

I’ve just finished reading Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting for the third time in ten years and finding it as inspiring and eye opening as ever. Written by John Carlson in 1929 it’s not a flashy book, no color pictures, no flowery language, doesn’t even mention paints, color or canvas. What it does offer up is how to see and think like an artist.

Thought I would unpack three of my favorite quotes from Carlson;

“An artist must first be a dreamer, and than a sane analyzer of those dreams.”

I believe this speaks to imposing your own preferences on a subject. How can I make this subject more appealing to me? It’s letting your imagination run wild, then reining it into something that can actually be painted. Here is an example below of a reference photo and the changes that took place that transformed it into what was in my head.

The real story here is a neighbor of mine sitting in front of a window in my dining room. Not very interesting. What I’d like her to be, an Eastern European immigrant, traveling with her favorite chicken. “At The Station”

“There can be no expression without previous impression.”

This is about actually getting emotional about your subject. Look at it, really look at it, how does it make you feel? Let it filter through your heart as well as your head. If you can’t come up with anything , move along, this isn’t a good subject for you.

This subject just exploded with youth and freedom, warmth and escaping the normal world. Infusing her into a bubbling atmosphere of weightlessness, moving toward nowhere in particular was my vision for her. “Going in Circles”

“In Art, knowledge assists invention.”

As artists, we can never believe we draw well enough or understand color enough. It’s life long training that help us gain the skill and knowledge to invent within our paintings. To create something that is unique to our personal vision.

A photo of a friend’s daughter in the back, overgrown yard of a neighbor.

There happened to be a broom resting against the dilapidated porch, she grabbed it. What I saw, a mystical being, walking through the tall sun lite grass, searching for some work to do with her broom. She might physically clean something up or help someone to “clean up” a problem in their life. “Summer Spirit”

Next time you’re faced with a new subject take some time to dig deep into the possibilities.

Moving Toward the Story 3

This is the third part of Moving Toward the Story. Many times when a finished painting is framed and on the wall I see there’s more to be done. One factor is the frame. It adds two horizontals and two verticals to the design, which can affect things. This happened with Pure Americana. Below left is the original finished version and on the right the framed painting with the changes I made to it. Can you spot at least 8 things that are different?

Below is the before image with numbers and explanations on why I added or deleted something.

  • 1. The right side of her hat is not in shadow anymore, it was too severe but more importantly it pulled the eye upward, not where I wanted it to go.
  • 2. I had to get rid of the blue mountains, even though I liked them. They created a visual weight pushing down on her. This is another example of a horizontal that wasn’t working.
  • 3. Because she has little visible face I felt the need to develop a softer texture in her hair , there was too much tension in it.
  • 4. I added the lace pattern on the top of her blouse, again, I felt she needed some softness.
  • 5. I cut down the underside of her arm, another horizontal that looked a little too heavy.
  • 6. Cut down the top of the arm also.
  • 7. Got rid of the shadow on the edge of her hat, didn’t really want your eye traveling down that line.
  • 8. Made her nose a little smaller and lowered the value slightly, it was just too strong in that sea of shadow.
  • 9. Brought the sky all the way out to the edge. The red on the upper edges of the sides was leading the eye up and out of the painting.

It’s never too late to change something in a painting as long as the freshness isn’t lost.

Developing the Idea, part 2

This is part two of Developing the Idea, view part one here.

The image on the right is after, what I call “the first pass”. Instead of looking at the subject I’m more interested in how the eye is moving through the painting. So I evaluate the shapes.

1. There are three parallel edges that make up her arm, the light falling on the arm and her dress. This is boring, I’ll get rid of one of these by using color instead of value to define the light falling on her arm.

2. This edge on the lower right of her dress is weak, am going to straighten it a bit.

3. I want to emphasis this sweeping edge so I need to push back her left arm and shirt by making them darker to move toward the background more.

4. Her hair at her forehead needs to be adjusted, directing the eye in more of a horizontal motion across her head.

After a couple days work

You can see the changes I’ve made. This is the point I stop and take a long hard look at where I am and where I want to be.

This is when it’s of great benefit to know what you like. What I’m talking about is what attracts you to other paintings? This is a very personal thing, the more you’re in tune to this the stronger your work will be.

Below are “my feelings” about this image;

She is too literal, I need more interesting hard edges to make the image bolder.

The color is too warm overall, cooler images appeal to me more.

I want more contrast, and movement, so lightening and cooling the sky is a good choice, also add more blues in the grass. Using a variety of lines; rough, smooth, long and short at the edges to get some interesting movement.

I think about the possibilities; I would love to make the bucket old and rusty …. but….I would have to sacrifice the interest of the shiny texture against the rough texture of her apron…in the end my decision is not to change it. But the idea is, to consider all the possible choices you have.

Since I’m going back to her hair, a simple sketch helps me to design her hair with the purpose of moving the eye across it in a intentional direction.

This simple sketch helps me see how I want her hair to move.

After these adjustments the image below is the final painting “Keeping’ It Real”.

In the final image notice how the original warm wash is still showing through in some areas, just enough to add a slight vibration and texture richness.

Developing the Idea

I’ve been asked how I develop the idea for a painting. Here is the process I went through in a recent one.

Finding a subject that resonates with me in my reference photos is the first stage, photo #1. I liked the gesture of her stance and the way the light is falling on the right side. I will replace the background barn and the foreground gravel, I want to tell a different story about her.

Photo #1

Than fleshing it out, how can I made this scene more of what I want to say? The photo on the left below, shows a cropped section of grass from a painting I did several years ago, (you never know when those old paintings will come in handy), which seemed a good environment for her. I’ll be omitting the barn and mountains in the back, just wanted the grass texture. Also it seemed a tractor would add to the story I want to tell, ( decided to use a red one instead of the yellow and red).

Putting them all together, it’s beginning to work. Notice how I cropped the figure in closer. A close cropping makes for bigger, bolder shapes, as well as focusing on what I feel are the most important parts.

For the first stage of this painting I decided to put a wash on the painting surface. Why? The glow of a colored wash on a white canvas can only be accomplished at the beginning. I’d like this glow to show through in small areas as the top more opaque layers of paint build up. I chose to use an orange tone under the green field area to add warmth, because green can sometimes be problematic as a raw cold color. In the area on the girl, I washed on a warm green because in real life the green in that field would be reflecting all over her. Also it creates a harmony within the painting. See the video below-

Diane, applying the initial warm wash on the canvas surface.

To be continued in part 2. . . . . . .

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

 

 

Having a Point of View

This is a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially during this time of COVID-19. Not having all the options in my day has forced me to be more focused.

Why do I spend 80% of every day painting, thinking about what I am painting or what I’m going to paint next?

Because it’s very important to express my feelings about my subjects, I just have to get it out. But am I really, getting “it” out? Are they reflecting what is inside me or just a piece of canvas with paint on it representing three dimension on a two dimensional surface.

For many years that is just what was happening…looks like the subject….yeah, good work, repeat. At some point this was very boring, wasn’t I more interesting than that, come on, can’t I make it more about me and less about the subject. This sounds a bit selfish, but I think that is exactly what good painting is about, your personal point of view.

Below is a recent painting I just complete, “Help Wanted”, and the versions that were necessary steps to help me arrive at my authentic point of view.

blog

The original photo. What I don’t like about it; the overall yellowish tone, Too much red in the lower section. This could take a nose dive into cuteness or sentiment. These things are fairly easy to overcome. Shift the color balance cooler and crop in the lower section. The sentimentality is going to be a conscious effort to not fall into what I’ve seen before.

Now for the really important stuff… what do I like, or why would I want to paint this, what’s my point of view? Looks like this you girl is waiting to be interviewed for a job. There is tension in her hands as she grips her purse, ( at least in one hand, I’ll have to re-gesture the other one) . Her face is tense and listless at once. Her blouse is a little too big maybe borrowed from someone, the hat sits at an awkward angle. Obviously not something she has worn much.

I’ve been there! Wearing uncomfortable “dress-up” clothes,trying to get a job, feeling in a trance because the Manager was too busy with important stuff to give me the time of day. An uneasy situation for sure.dan111

Above, exploring my options. I could give her a dark jacket and gloves, add something dark to the left. Taking the color out of it, turning it to pure value can help with design decisions. How am I going to fill the space in an interesting way?

ver3

At this point I reconnected with my purpose and it was not working, why? The attitude of the hands and expression in the face were lost. The ground and her skirt were more interesting, not my intention. What do I do now?

Could put it in the failed paintings pile and move on to something else…or….really learn something and figure out how to turn it around.

She needs to be bigger in the story, crop in closer to really see her face and hands, Back to the light blouse and hands with no gloves, just attack it and make it behave!

IMG_3977

The beginning of the “right” thing over the “wrong” thing”. It’s a little confusing to just paint over something else, but makes you realize, this is about you, you can do anything you want to, that’s freeing!

helpwanted-lr

This is what I wanted to say, my point of view. There could be hundreds of others, but this one is mine.

 

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.

Dan-lr

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!

dan-wrok

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!

sitting-lr

Here is the finished painting “Two Worlds”.

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.

blog1frame

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.

goldframe

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.

IMG_2641

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.

unkowblack-lr

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.

elJalesco-lr

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,