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”.

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,

 

 

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!

 

 

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.

 

 

 

A Painting Critique “Aquarius”

I’ve been doing a series of stilllife paintings featuring clear water in clear vessels, thought I’d have some fun with it so I chose this subject.

I usually like to start off with a drawing, why?duck-draw

  • I can explore the subject in a simpler form, no color, no paint.
  • Helps to organize the values and see where “pushing them around” could benefit the painting.
  • Helps to imagine how I may want to exaggerate or suppress some things to make a stronger statement

Ducks-before

After about 4 hours I was at this point, 90% finished. This is a good time to get away for at least 8 hours in order to get a fresh eye on the scene.

O.K., this is when I put away the reference and go in for what I call “last looks”.

1. The color of the ducks is too cold, remember, even if this is the actual color that was in the reference, your responsibility is not to record it, but to make it what will be the aesthetic best choice. It’s also hard to see the one duck in front of the other. So…

  • Warm up the color, dull the back duck by add a small amount of background color to it.

2.The table appears too flat and disconnected to the ducks……

  • Add yellow to the table where the light hits it most (lower right corner), making it diminish as it goes to the shadows.

3. The highlight on the upper left bowl is confusing, highlight on lower left of bowl too bland. Both of these add activity to an already active area…..

  • Eliminate upper and lower highlight, try it on the left instead (where it could use some interest).

4. Yellow in ducks seems isolated, would like to see more of it in the scene…..

  • Work some yellow into the background.

5. Towel texture could be played up more…..

  • Soften the towel edge as it overlaps the bowl on lower left, as well as the far right edges against the table.

6. Edge of bowl on right and left not symmetrical…..

  • Look at it in a mirror, upside down, whatever it takes to see how I need to correct this.

Compare the before and after images of the painting below-

two-ducksducks-after

After a coat of Liquin and another hour I was able to vastly improve this image.

Next painting, take an extra hour or so to see how far you can take it!

White on White, Clear on Clear

There are numerous things in the physical world that are more difficult to paint. White on white and clear on clear are on that list. Why? looking at the other side of the spectrum may help to answer that.

What are some easier subjects to paint?

  • Red barns against blue skies in green fields
  • Bright flowers in colorful vases
  • Sunsets from photographs

 

These things share color intensity that are close to “right out of the tube”.

 

What if color is dropped to an extremely low intensity as in white objects next to white objects or clear liquid in a clear vessel? It gets real interesting.

My recent painting “Potion” shared both of these traits, I discovered something that made this challenge easier for me.

Working from both life and a photo at the same time. We know that working from life is the real deal, accurate color, values, shapes, it’s all there. However sometimes our eyes have a hard time seeing the subtlest of subtleties, that’s when the photo comes to the rescue.

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My set up above, painting on the left, real life in the middle and my image on the computer on the right.

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This is the photo of the setup. Notice the glowing area, top left in the jar. In real life it was so brilliant I could not see what shape it was and how it transitioned to the dark around it. In the photo it is very clear what is happening. However the colors in that transition are not in the photo but real life.

The long fold of fabric coming down from the jar was such a subtle difference from the flat white behind it , the photo showed me there was a slight value difference and also exaggerated the color difference. So I chose to use values and colors between both bits of information.

Many other areas were made easier by referring to both. Richer colors and textures from life, values from the photo.Potion-final-lr

 

The finished painting “Potion” can be seen at “Plunge” a group show at, Meyer Vogl Gallery in Charleston, SC, from December 7-28.

Gypsy Skirt

Why did I decide to paint this subject? Was it the simple curved composition, the cool tones plus rich reds, the quiet mood…yes, all those things. So I begin by looking at my options with a couple of small value studies. How can I push what I want to say, the feelings I have for the subject?value.studies.blog

First a little line drawing, than layout paper over it. This way I don’t have to redraw the image over and over, it’s visible through the paper, so with two pens, one black, one grey (the paper is the white), I can quickly try out different combinations.

It’s about disassembling the parts and putting it back together. In the left sketch, the  foliage, skirt, top of bench and shadows underneath are the darkest value. Everything else is medium except the light falling on her right side. Hmmmmm….this could work, but that big dark foliage kind of pushes down on her, creating a heaviness.

The sketch on the right holds the darks to her hair, skirt and the under shadows. Everything else is grey except her face, body and shirt are the light tone. Without the dark behind her head she seems taller, lifted. This is definitely the directions I want to go. Either one would work, but the one on the right is what “I” want to say about this scene. This is where getting away from being too literal can be really fun. It’s all about choices.

Next on to the color study, I already have the drawing, the one I used under the value sketches. What are the variables here; this is a scene in the shade, so there are going to be lots of cool tones. Going to want to play with some warms also or this might get too cold. An underpainting wash of warm violet and red orange would work well.

If I’m thinking about doing this in my painting, I need to do it in my color sketch, or they aren’t the same thing at all.

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The sketch with Quinacridone Magenta and Cadmium Red Light wash. I like to let my undertones dry completely, that way I can paint over them or scrape back to them.

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The small color study. Notice I’m not trying to match the values to the previous plan but I am matching the relationship of each area next to another. Squinting will help you see that the darks are the hair, skirt and shadows under the bench, the mediums are everything else except her face arms and shirt which are the lights. There are some accent darks and lights here and there but it still holds to the original plan.

The questions that I want to get answered here;

How cold should my coolest color be, and how warm should my warmest color be?

How dark is my darkest dark going to be and how light is my light?

Which colors and values work best next to each other?

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In the final painting there was lots of room to”open up” the color study, work more interest into areas. Having solved some of the bigger problems up front allowed me to have more fun and freedom in the actual painting.

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.

Last.look.final

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!