How plein air painting helps your studio work

The more we subject ourselves to painting outdoors the more we’ll learn about pitfalls of painting in general.
Working in your studio is great but the biggest problem is always ‘over-planning’ a painting.
Outside, that won’t be an issue. There’s simply no time, but in the studio we have all the time in the world and that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Here’s why:

Imagine you have your paper up, the reference ready on the ipad (or by whatever other means) and you begin your drawing. You’ll draw and draw, erase and re-draw. Pretty soon, all that beautiful energy of line work will be diminished, if not completely gone.
Just like when we paint with pigment, it is so important to have that energy in the work. Erasing, second guessing, changing while half way thorough will all interfere with the original graphite line or brush stroke. Sure, sometimeit doesn’t look right and we do have to use an eraser. That’s ok. That’s not what I mean.

I am talking about the over-planning and overworking that happens so easily when painting in the studio. It happens because we have too much time and we want to make it perfect. The problem is, it won’t be. Quite the opposite will most likely happen. We want to be so perfect that the work will look ‘blah’ in the end. It may even look perfect but unfortunately, boring as well. Who wants something perfect? I’d take a photograph..
Sure, it may be a bigger size but that doesn’t mean it’s better.
Quite often the smaller paintings done in very little time do look fresher, more alive and full of energy than the bigger studio versions.

What to do is the question! I think the solution lies in painting indoors as if you’d paint outdoors. Not exactly rushing it, but nonetheless at a brisk pace with little or no corrections. Let it all flow. Let it happen.
During the preliminary drawing, let the pencil flow across the paper, hardly lifting it. Feel the energy going on the paper! Don’t be a drawing/painting robot.
I heard once that one should never erase the wrong lines. The analogy was getting lost in a snow storm. You need the old tracks in the snow to know that you were wrong and to find the right way…doesn’t fit 100% but has a true ring to it!

To use my painting above as an example: This watercolor is 18by24 inches, done in the studio. I have painted this with the help of my many sketches I did on location and with the aid of a few photographs I took of the scene. It was painted quickly, in less than two hours total. Without having actually painted there, it would have never come out like this!

Teaching at Yosemite Valley

This was my second year working for the Yosemite conservancy at the Art and Educational Center in Yosemite Valley, California.
The week went by like a blurr and my classes were exceptionally well attended. Painting locations included the Merced River, the Ahwahnee Hotel, the meadow across the Yosemite falls (unfortunately, w/o water) and the Horse stables.

I’d like to thank Aline Allen of the Art Center, for her organizational skills and filling my classes. It is a privilege to be a guest at Yosemite and I look forward to coming again in the near future!

Abstraction in realist painting

What is abstraction? Webster says: ‘..expressing ideas and emotions by using elements such as colors and lines without attempting to create a realistic picture.’

There is a lot of abstract painting in my work. During this exhibit some people commented about how realistic my work looks until you take a closer look. I pointed out to them that most scenes have very little to do with reality. It just feels that way.

There are a few different methods that can be done to achieve this.

One is the exaggeration or manipulation of values contrast. Here’s an example in my work. The buildings appear very soft and ‘tonally wrong’ compared to the rest of the picture, i.e. the contrasty figures up close. In real life, the figures would not be as strong and the buildings would not be as weak as I painted them.

A NewYork minute

Andrew Wyeth was a master of this. Here’s an example. Notice the dark background hill? It feels like a ‘realistic painting’ but has very little to do with it.

wyeth

Colors can be altered within an object or shape. A shadowy white building might have blues and pinks in it. Here’s an example of an oil painter who achieves this within the girl’s hair (Daniel Gerhartz)

Daniel Gerhartz

Others introduce a different color scheme to an already existing light situation, blue juxtapositioned with orange/red, the way Van Gogh did.

Van Gogh

‘Loosely painted nothingness’ in backgrounds or unimportant areas, is another. If you look at the background in this painting (Paso Robles Acorn) the lines and shapes make no sense. They don’t have to because I established what it is by painting the middle ground more defined, so the background ‘reads right’.

downtown Paso

My friend Josh Clare, another oil painter,  did this so well with the close up of his cow painting: Can you see the second cow on the left? It works because the first one is all there.

josh clare

All this illustrates how much abstract painting so called realist painters actually do. More than we might think!

Less is more

This is a head study of a girl. Doing these in watercolor is just great! So much fun with the stuff running all over the paper, me desperately trying to control it and make it go where I think it should. Did I say it’s a ton of fun? I must be nuts..
If you look closely, you’ll notice all the techniques the medium has to offer. Soft, uncontrolled washes to hardest edge and drybrush and everything else in between. I particularly like how her mouth came out, since I didn’t really paint the left side at all. I got a highlight by painting around a section on her lower lip with the second glaze and as I squinted to check my values, I noticed that the mouth is already there!
I painted some of this at Studios on the park, where I am a visiting artist this month and some of the other painters came in to look. They all said, ‘don’t do anything else – it’s done’.. They were right!

Watercolor is at it’s best if you manage to make it look as if there’s something there. The more we paint every little detail and try to make it look more like the photograph or model, the tighter it starts to look and pretty soon it’s overworked. Makes you wanna run back to oil painting, doesn’t it? Not really…

Girl portrait

Skin tones are tricky business. It must not look like a doll or lifeless. The light situation, the person’s ethnicity all plays a role, of course. Base colors for skin are cobalt blue, magenta and hansa yellow. Multiple glazes must be applies to achieve depth and shape. Facial features are applied with a cross-hatch technique, almost like in graphite drawing. There it is again, the good ol’ drawing skill…
The lightest light is the white of the paper; all around the girl, her shoulders, hand and hair. I applied the background and some of her dress with gouache paint.
In portraiture, the important part is to capture the personality or character of a person. Likeness is important as well, but the former more so.

I feel these can still be much better. I also like to do more with the backgrounds and the story. The farmer is such a painting. Small time farmers are a dying breed. Like the landscapes we paint, they slowly disappear. Landscapes turn into ugly, gated McHousing developments and farming is run by huge corporations who push family farms out of business. Don’t get me started..

Figurative work and portraits

Portraits are mostly done in oil and pastel. Watercolor not so much.
Historically, watercolor has been the sketch medium. It wasn’t until the British watercolor movement in the 1800’s that you would see artists paint a watercolor and consider it a piece of art in it’s own right.
We do have an appreciation for watercolor today, but the status quo really hasn’t changed that much. Oil rules the world of art and it probably will never change. Especially in Portrait painting. Oil paintings fetch a lot more money, there are no size limitations, it is easier to control and possibilities in texture are not as limited. So why bother with watercolor?

The things I personally like about it are the qualities that makes artists move to oils: you can’t control it 100%, it’s hard to fix mistakes and you can’t layer. Yes, you can glaze but that’s different.
When a watercolor comes out nice, it is luminous (oil paints are not) and spontaneous. It feels natural, unforced.
That’s why it is so important to paint it all quickly and decisively with as little brushwork as possible. It then retains that character. As soon as we start layering up too thickly, mixing too many similar washes and even pressing too hard with the brush, it all goes away. All of a sudden, it’s looks dull and tired. How did that happen? We’ve all been there many times!
It takes a sensitive brush stroke and a keen eye to know where the turning point is. Sometimes, about half way through the painting you can feel the doubts creeping in. To me that’s my personal alarm bell that tells me to back off! The Gods of watercolor are sending me a friendly warning…they say, ‘a bit more of this kind of thing and this one will go into the garbage can, so be careful, you!’

Painting Portraits is something I have done a lot in the 90’s. It was supplemental income when I worked as an illustrator for a design agency. Back then I was not proficient in watercolor, but gouache was my medium. It is watermedia but I used it like oil paints. The challenge now is to find a way to do it in watercolor and with atmospheric effects. Maybe even include gouache or acrylic. There are certain things you just can’t do with transparent watercolor. I am excited! I will still paint my usual subject matter, but you will see more figurative work as well.

More thoughts on painting

Last catch of the day!

Often enough, we see paintings in international competitions that are 1:1 copies of photographs. Often they win big awards. It is interesting to note that most non-artists identify ‘great art’ by how realistic it is painted.

I once was gallery sitting and there was a huge painting of a tree right at the entrance of the exhibition.
The tree was hyper-realistic, it was just like looking at a photograph of it. The artist must’ve spent weeks or even months painting every leaf of it. Only when you’d move up close could you see that it was actually a painting. This one guy came in on a couple occasions while the show was up, always making it a point to tell me that that tree was the best painting he’s ever seen in his life! He was blown away by it. He couldn’t get over it. He loved that painting.

I thought about this for a long time. Who gets to decide what good art is or what art is in general? Would I contradict him and say I disagree with his assessment? Of course not. I just smiled and thought ‘whatever’.
Usually the jurors of competitions decide what painting makes it into a given exhibition. Jurors have opinions, just like the guy who loved the tree painting. It says that a certain person likes it, that’s for sure. Does that mean it is good art? Does it mean anything? Or is it just one person’s opinion?

One person’s opinion: the person who buys the painting, the juror who judges the painting. One person loves it, the other one hates it. It is the same in music, isn’t it? That’s why it is hard to have a discussion about art or music!

Having said all that, I have come to notice that there *is* a certain consensus about what’s good and what’s ..well, bad! If a painting is beautiful, everybody will notice it and 90 percent of visitors will agree. It will stop them in their tracks and have them take another look. Here’s an analogy: the beauty of a women. (hey, I am a guy)
While it is highly debatable if a woman is beautiful or not, there is a man out there who thinks she is and another who thinks she’s not. But when it comes to sheer beauty, almost everyone agrees. Most men and women from all walks of life would agree that Audrey Hepburn (just an example that came to my mind right now) was beautiful.
Going back to music, it is the same there. Some music is just sublime and there’s not much discussion about it. Bach, Mozart, Britney Spears maybe..

So, generally speaking, it’s all relative. But then there’s the beauty, the sublime, the awe inspiring – and most of us agree! What is your take? Am I right, am I wrong? I want to know what you think! Leave a comment, if you have a couple minutes. It is an interesting topic!