Monday, December 22, 2014

Painting from Photographs

One thing that you hear from every good landscape painter is that you have to paint on location because photographs never contain the colors and values the human eye can see. I have found this to be true over and over. I paint on location and snap a photo for further reference. Back in the studio, the photo is always inferior in information compared to the plein air sketch.

This photo is a good example. It was taken by a friend walking in a field I often walk myself. I have seen this sunset sky and colors dozens of times. What doesn't the photo show? The camera pushes the values to the dark end of value scale, because the aperture on the camera has closed down to give a truer value to the sky. The camera always compensates to retain the color and value in the area with the most light (the sky), to keep it from being burned out. That looks great in a photo. But the mid and mid dark values are pushed into a tighter value range than they actually were. The distinction in value between the horizontal plane (the ground) and the inclined planes (the hills) is almost lost. Having walked here at this time of day, I know that the horizontal ground plane was lighter in value than in the photo. It most directly faces the light from the sky.

Another problem is that the temperature play between warm and cool has almost totally been lost in the photo. The light was coming from the left and the left side of each tree was lighter and influenced by the pink light. You could see the temperature variation on the green hill, between the areas in light and the areas where the trees blocked the light.

Also, the dark vertical planes of the trees have very little color in the photo. They are almost black. To the eye, I could see the warm toned green of the trees. They were dark but I could see the local color. The further trees were distinctly bluer. The photo doesn't show this.

If you have painted on location a lot, it will be easier to work from photos ... because you will be aware of what is missing and what has been changed. You can make adjustments that correct the shortcomings of the photo.

It is a lovely scene, though. You can imagine what is was to walk through it.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Those Other Pigments

Burnt Umber
Burnt Sienna
Raw Sienna
Yellow Ochre
Cadmium Yellow Lemon (or Permanent Yellow Light)
Cadmium Yellow Medium (or Permanent Yellow)
Cadmium Red Light 
Alizarin Crimson
Ultramarine Blue
Cerulean Blue
Sap Green
Titanium White (large tube)
Ivory Black (for black and white exercises only)

This is the basic palette that I start students on. But, as you have seen, we have used other colors. They are not necessary, but they are occasionally useful.  We've mentioned so many in the past few weeks, here's a list. 

Additional Hues:
  • Cobalt Blue - a true blue, cooler than cerulean and warmer than ultramarine. I put in on my palette for landscapes, especially overcast days. It is a very weak color and grays quickly when mixed with white.
  • Napthol Red (Winsor Red, Grumbacher Red) - a true red, cooler than cadmium red and warmer than alizarin. I don't usually put it on my palette unless I am painting red things.

The dye colors (high chroma, high tinting strength - meaning they hold up to white): These colors do NOT add to the number of hues in the basic palette, only to the chroma strength.
  • Permanent Rose - Useful for florals, portraits and when you need a strong pink.
  • Permanent Magenta - Useful in florals, portraits and plein air shadows.
  • Dioxazine Purple - Not useful as often as Perm Rose and Perm Magenta. A mix of Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson will usually get you there.
  • Phthalo Blue - Same hue as Cerulean, useful for creating darks, turquoises, purples and painting the deep blue sea.
  • Phthalo Green - Same hue as Viridian, useful for the same things as Phthalo Blue (well, deep green sea).
  • Transparent Red Oxide - Useful for warming darks without lightening them. I have replaced Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna with TRO. Harder to handle but gives me the option of transparent earth tones.
  • Indian Yellow - Useful for warming darks without lightening them. (The cadmiums, ochres and siennas are opaque and lighten while they warm.)

Convenience Color:
  • Phthalo Yellow Green - the only color on my palette that is not single pigment. It is a mixture of  viridian or phthalo green and cadmium yellow. I use it so often, it's nice to have at hand, for when I need something cooler than yellow. It's great in shadows.

I am in no way saying you need to go out and buy these colors. They increase the range of what is possible to mix, mostly in the area of chroma. But what you are learning to do is to relate, and you can always relate color spots within the palette you are using. Sometimes, more colors make it more confusing. 

Remember, my limited palette for beginners is simply a double primary palette of a warm and cool of each primary: cadmium yellow lemon and medium, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue and titanium white. Kevin MacPherson's palette is cadmium yellow light, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, phthalo green and titanium white. Whatever you have on your palette, you still look for the relationships between the color spots in your painting. More colors of paint do not change that basic task.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Drawing Leads to Painting

Two things have recently resulted in my drawing for drawing's sake. For quite a long time the only drawing I've done is comps and prep sketches for paintings. But by not drawing the world around you, you cut off an interaction that is the starting point of creating. Where do ideas come from? They don't arrive full blown. Or at least not very many do. When you draw, you see things.

The first thing that led me to break out my sketchbook and draw, was that I wanted to set an example for my students ... to encourage them to start sketching as part of their day. It took only a few pages in my sketchbook to rekindle the desire to draw. I had forgotten the zen-like absorption and peace that falls over me when I draw. I love that it is back in my life.

The second revelation was that the moment I started to draw, I started to have ideas. I saw interesting things. I noticed the way a tree stood out in front of a hill. I saw the value pattern in a row of windows on the upper story of what had appeared initially to be a very ordinary building.

I became an renewed advocate of the belief that to be a good painter you have to be a good drawer. For the past three months, my painting class has included a drawing session one day out of the month. I am so happy with the results for my students that I am permanently adding one drawing class a month to my painting courses.

I also started the Temecula Urban Sketchers. Quite a few of the beginning drawers I have met have asked questions about how to move from drawing to painting. Many urban sketchers sketch and then add watercolor to their graphite or ink drawings. Watercolor or gouache is certainly more portable than sketching in oils. My suggestion is start small ... and just start. The easiest way is with a small kit with a limited palette, using water brushes. You can carry that and a pen or pencil in a pocket.

Cathy Johnson uses a muted primary palette (red, yellow, blue) of Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet, Gold Ochre and Indigo.

In this example, Johnson uses four colors; Venetian Red, Payne's Gray, Yellow Ochre and Phthalo Blue.  She has everything she needs in each little kit ... a pencil or pen, a water brush and color.

Vladimir Tuporshin also has a very minimal kit, but one with a few more colors. He has only six items; watercolor box, ink pen, waterbrush, a clip, a fold of paper towel and a moleskine watercolor notebook.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Taeil Kim, the Painting Process

Three short videos by artist Taeil Kim illustrate many of the painting steps we have been talking about in class.

Taeil Kim describes the process in the first video as the sketch, basic values and relating the values.
  • He draws the subject with the dark shapes created by the woman's features and hair. He is careful with the placement, but from the first stroke a painting is a process of refining earlier decisions. No decision is locked in.
  • He lays in the basic values with large color spots. There is no detail yet.
  • He determines the values by relating them to each other and to the background wash.

In the second video, Kim describes the next steps as a refinement of color and value, focus on edge control and detail.
  • He continues to assess his color and value decisions, using accurate relationships between values and color of the light, halftone and shadow planes.
  • He breaks initial larger color spots into smaller color spots, while preserving the values of the larger masses.
  • As he continues to assess the color spots he works on the edges between them, creating a range of hard to soft.
  • Detail is left to the last.

Taeil Kim takes us through the entire process of painting a portrait.
  • His initial block-in uses shapes more than line. He blocks in the dark shapes of the features and hair. The drawing is reduced to an abstract of only two values, light and dark.
  • He begins to add his color spots, again relating value and color. He starts with large masses of light, halftone and shadow.
  • Detail is a matter of breaking the larger shapes into smaller shapes, the smaller into even smaller. You can refine this to the point of a finely rendered portrait. In this case, he takes the process of refinement much further than in the example above with very subtle value relationships and soft edges.
  • The process from start to finish is fluid. No decision is final. It is open to improvement and refinement.

Monday, June 9, 2014

On Location and in the Studio

Frederick Church, Ridges in the Blue Mountain, 1865

I came across this oil sketch by Frederick Church. It accomplishes what a plein air sketch should - it observes. The actual scene was probably more complicated, but the artist used one receding hill to record the color of the mountain from foreground, to mid-ground to background and to record the color of the mountain at the top in light and the bottom in shadow. He also records the color of the mountain in both sunlight and cloud cover. The sketch has everything the artist needs as reference to paint a larger, more detailed painting of the mountain range in the studio. So, I went looking for the studio painting. I may have found it.

Frederick Church, Scene in the Blue Mountains

I don't know if the studio painting was painted by Church from this particular plein air sketch, but it was certainly painted from the knowledge and reference gained from other on location sketches. The plein air sketch has an immediacy that the studio painting lacks, but the larger painting has more detail that the limited time on location doesn't permit. The studio painting wouldn't be possible without the study. I found several other paintings by Church of the same mountain.

Frederic Church, Blue Mountains, graphite and oil

This oil and graphite sketch looks like an on location drawing of the geology of the mountain range. Church studied the subject carefully. He knows how the planes of the mountain work. This informs the studio paintings.

Frederick Church, In the Blue Mountains

"In the Blue Mountains" is a studio painting of the same mountain on a day when the color of the light and the atmosphere were very different. I didn't find it, but I am sure there is an on location sketch that recorded the color in this situation.

Working from life, on location, and taking the time to do color and drawing studies leads to good studio works. Beginning painters often overlook the study and practice that painting requires. They jump straight to the masterpiece without enough information about the color or structure of the subject.

Here is another set of paintings by Jim Wodark that I am guessing are the on location sketch and the studio painting. Both paintings have a real sense of the the light and the location. I love the immediacy and accuracy of painting on location. It is rare to recapture that onsite accuracy in the studio piece. But back in the studio, the artist can put time into design, composition and detail which creates an equally valuable result.

Jim Wodark, Evening Eucalyptus,  8 x 8"

Jim Wodark, Eucalyptus Evening, 20 x 24"

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Cover the Canvas

One of the first things that Sergei Bongart said to students was to cover the canvas.  He would not critique any other aspect of your painting until you had the first pass down on the canvas and it was completely covered, with no bare or white areas of canvas showing. Every teacher I have ever taken from, who knew what they were doing, gave the same advice.

Why is it so important to cover the canvas? Because no color spot can be evaluated on its own, only in relation to the other color spots. Whether you work on a white canvas or a toned canvas - that canvas will influence how you see the color spots you put on it. Until you cover the canvas you cannot assess the color relationships without that influence. The first pass is your best guess. It will be inaccurate. It is impossible for it not to be inaccurate.  You have nothing to relate the color spots to. That's why you don't spend a lot of time on the first pass. You have to get the canvas covered before you can really begin. Then, with each succeeding pass assess each color spot and if it needs correction, correct it. That is how the painting process works.

After you have covered the canvas, use the three properties of color to assess and improve the color relationships between the color spots? The three properties of color are:
  • Hue - Identify the color family (red, blue, yellow, green, orange, violet).  Within that color family is it warm or cool?
  • Chroma - Is it bright or dull?
  • Value - Is it light or dark?
That's it. Relate any two color spots within the painting based on the three properties. Which is the warmest. Which the coolest. Which the brightest or dullest. Which the lightest or darkest.

Let's look more closely at the properties of color using red as an example.
  • Hue
    • A warm red has a bias towards yellow - an orangey red like coral
    • A cool red has a bias towards blue - a violet red like magenta
  • Chroma
    • A bright red is not toned by the complement - fire engine red
    • A dull red is toned by the complement - terra cotta red
  • Value
    • A light red has white or a lighter value color added - pink
    • A dark red has black or a darker value color added - burgundy red
To correct color relationships in your painting, relate or compare similar things, using the three properties as a basis for comparison.
  • Compare all the greens; compare all the reds, etc.
  • Compare all the light values - which is the lightest
  • Compare all the dark values - which is the darkest
  • Compare all the bright colors - which is the brightest
  • Compare all the dull colors - which is the dullest
Cover the canvas, compare and correct. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Have the Courage to Paint Badly

Josh Shenk, author of "Lincoln's Melancholy" suggests to writers:

Get through a draft as quickly as possible. It's hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.

I came across the quote above and it struck me that the same is true of painting. So often students will put weeks into a painting and it ends up looking no better than it did a few hours after they started it. They are lost in learning how to paint. You can't take a painting further than you know how, no matter how much time you spend on it. Every painting is practice and the fastest way forward is to do your best, move on, and make lots and lots of starts. Let each painting go. Accept that it is what it is. Progress is in the process, not in insisting on perfection ... before you are perfected!

You won't know the shape of your creativity until you've risked letting go of the result.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Color Block Exercise

I highly recommend studies of colored blocks set up in a variety of light sources - one light source per painting.  You will learn more about color by doing this exercise than painting from a photograph. Use a  9 x 12" or 11 x 14" canvas panel. Don't labor over these. It's an exercise. Observe the color spot; match the color; apply the paint. 

1.   Using a brush, draw the blocks on your canvas as close to life size as possible.
2.  Observe each side of the block or the background adjacent to it and mix a single color spot and apply it with a palette knife or as few strokes as possible. 
3.  Cover the canvas before you go back and assess your choices or make any changes.  
4. As you work compare each color spot to the one next to it by running through the three properties of color.  Is it warmer/cooler, brighter/duller, lighter/darker than the spot next to it?  Relate.  
5.  Don't jump all over the canvas.  Relate each spot to the adjacent spot.
6.  As you compare on your second/third/fourth pass at the canvas, make any adjustment you see.  Trust your eye, not your brain.  If the gray cloth looks alizarin-ish, add alizarin. 

Keep in mind two types of comparisons you are making:

1.  Compare the adjacent sides of a color block in the set-up.  Then make the same comparison in your painting.  So, in the set-up, compare the top of a block to the side of the same block.  Then, compare the top of the that block to the side of the same block in your painting.  Relate within the set-up, then relate within the painting. This is to this, as that is to that. The goal is to accurately see the relationships in the set-up and to create the same relationships in the painting.

2.  You can double check the accuracy of your color spots by rapidly flicking your eyes back and forth between a spot in the set up and the same spot in the painting.  Quickly glance back and forth between the top of a block in the set-up and the top of the same block in the painting.  What is lacking in your color spot will rise to the surface.  If your spot needs green, you will see it's lack as you glance back and forth.

So, relate this is to this as that is to that to make your color spots.  Then, relate this to that to check yourself.

What you do in this exercise is what you should be doing all of the time when painting from life, whatever the subject matter.  You cannot learn about color from photographs.  The photograph is not subtle enough to make distinctions. It generalizes color.  It does not accurately record relationships, so the information is simply not there for you to use.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Don't be ambiguous. Commit.

I have been working on some paintings that I started in the past but had not finished.  With each one, even though they were started, I have had to go back to the beginning.  I thought at first this was because I had lost my train of thought and needed to find my way back into the painting.  It is more complicated.  I had to go back to the beginning because in each painting I had not done the work that needs to be done at the start of a painting.  I had not decided what it was that I wanted to do.  It's probably why I never finished the paintings.

I had not made basic, essential decisions about the value distribution in the design. About shapes.  Really, I had not decided what the painting's story was. You can't reach a destination if you don't know where you want to go. I'm rather shocked by the ambiguousness of my block-ins, about my reluctance to make decisions and commit to a direction.  What I am having to do with each of these paintings, is to decide.  Is to commit.

What shape exactly do I want a field to be.  What is the purpose of this tree to the design.  Do I want the painting to be about the sky or the land.  What is the focal point.  A blob of a tree is randomly placed because I didn't stop, observe what was happening in the landscape and decide how the tree was useful. I didn't make a decision about what to change and what to keep.

Block-ins may be loose, but they are the bedrock of the decisions that make a painting.  Don't be ambiguous.  How can the viewer understand what I am seeing, if I am not clear about it myself, and not clear about how I want to organize that information.  Decisions about value, shape, placement and design have nothing to do with style, or whether a painting is loosely or tightly rendered. They are the artistic process itself. Confront and solve each painting from the moment you pick up a pencil or brush.  You can experiment with possible solutions, and they are infinite, but you can't paint the painting until you commit to one solution. Then, everything you do must support the direction you have chosen.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Plein Air at the Santa Rosa Plateau

Yesterday TPAA (Temecula Plein Air Artists) and SDPAP (San Diego Plein Air Painters) met at Sylvan Meadows at the Santa Rosa Plateau. The recent rain turned the grass a muted green, but it is still a week or so early for the poppies. There were about 12 artists there. It adds so much energy to paint with a group.

I painted two paintings. The first is 9 x 12". I was amazed at how much I had to tone the greens with reds and orange. It was a sunny day, but there was a lot of moisture in the air so a haze brought the values in the distance up. I blocked in the entire painting but it didn't look like the scene, so I took out my color isolator and checked for value. I had everything two steps too dark. When that was corrected it began to look like the day.

Path on March Morning, Santa Rosa Plateau
Mary Mulvihill

As I was cleaning up I turned around and loved the scene behind me. There were three receding hills with warm olive trees on them. I quickly did a 6 x 8" color spot sketch. The purpose of the sketch is to record the colors of each object  and how they relate to each other. It isn't necessary to create an exact representation of the scene. I recorded the light, halftone and shadow colors of a tree and the hill in the foreground, mid-ground, background and sky. Combined with a photo of the scene, I have all the information I need for a studio painting. The color spot sketch took about 10 minutes. Sometime when I paint plein air the color and light are changing so fast, all I do is color spots. I end up with color reference that no photograph will ever match.

Receding Hills, Santa Rosa Plateau
Mary Mulvihill

Monday, March 24, 2014

Plein Air Supplies

This is my plein air kit. I squeeze out plenty of paint in the Masterson palette and leave all tubes except white at home.

plein air easel or pochade box and tripod
chair or folding stool
     If you like to sit.
     Bristle filberts #2, #4 (two), #6 (two) and #8
canvas panels
     6 x 8", 8 x 10" or 9 x 12" 
palette knife
palette scraper
odorless mineral spirits
paper towels
sketchbook & pencil
color isolator
plastic grocery bag for used paper towels
masking tape
cart to carry everything

Plein Air at Santa Rosa Plateau, March 29th

Hello all!

Those of you who know me personally, know that I have been caregiver for my mother the past few years, since she was diagnosed with dementia. She passed away last month. Thank you to everyone who has supported me through the past years and especially the past six months. She had a long, productive and healthy life and was a few weeks shy of her 95th birthday.

I am re-initializing my blog and website, so expect to be hearing a lot from me. I currently have classes on Wednesday in Fallbrook, in drawing and painting. I'm looking for a Temecula location and am also organizing a plein air class and a critique class. I have also started a group on Meetup, the Temecula Plein Air Artists. The first plein air event is this Saturday, March 29th, at the Santa Rosa Plateau. It starts at 9:00 a.m. The best way to receive news of new plein air outings is to join the Meetup group. You will receive notices of events and a map.

I hope to see you soon, painting the Inland Valley. The best way to improve your skills and see color is to paint from life!

A few photos of my class at the Santa Rosa Plateau: