Yosemite Ranger stables

Visiting and painting a scene at different times of the day is a very good idea. I have my favorite scenes that I just keep painting over and over. This scene in Yosemite valley is definitely one of them. I keep learning about how light changes color appearance and value patterns.
For instance, in a back lit scene like the horses in the morning there is less color range compared to the afternoon scene. Or is there? Yes, in the morning the colors are predominantly cooler in temperature, the warm colors are there too but they are less warm than later in the day. That is the major difference in the two scenes. The morning is more atmospheric, however, both scenes have the full range of value from lightest to darkest.
In fact, one might argue that the value range is even more drastic in the front lit scene. Notice the darks under the roof of the barn building.
Both paintings do have warm vs. cool colors. The dark shadow in the afternoon scene is cool in temperature overall, but upon closer examination you’ll find warm accents within it.

In terms of painting, the interplay between warms and cools make a painting work. In fact it might be one of the most crucial things to learn to do right besides control of value.

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On the road to Baiwucun Village (2018)

On the road to Baiwucun Village (2018)

The Quotidian (2018)

The Quotidian (2018)

This blog post was originally published in my newsletter earlier in March. Edited for clarification.

Being invited to the inaugural 2018 Huize Watercolor Exhibition in Qujing, China, was a big honor for me. I did not expect it. There are plentiful outstanding painters in the watercolor world, and I was surprised (and flattered) to have been invited. Our Western contingent hailed from Australia, Brazil, Italy, Ukraine, Russia, the US, and Germany. The Eastern contingent arrived from Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, and over 50 Chinese nationals from all over the country. I met so many first-rate, virtuoso painters, it was intimidating and especially inspiring! After 20 hours’ total travel time (San Francisco to Chengdu to Kunming to Qujing) I fell dead asleep in bed. Let me tell you, the airport at Kunming is regarded as “medium-sized”, with just over 150 gates. This was my first hint that It’s Different In China (and it wasn’t the last). Everything is big. People are everywhere. It took time to get used to that!

As this was a plein air event, the group of artists were shuttled to various painting locations: traditional villages in the heart of a bustling town or in a sweeping valley (It’s Different In China), a river surrounded by mountains, a factory in the countryside. Painters were given a choice of locations, and my selections, as a first-timer in Asia, were based on curiosity. As with painting outdoors, the first step is finding a scene. By the time you’ve decided, an Asian artist has already finished their first wash. While you’re waiting on your first wash to dry, they’re on their second painting. Some of the Asian artists were fast!

Portrait of a Chinese Girl (2018)

Portrait of a Chinese Girl (2018)

The work I saw were impressive explorations of composition, perspective, and proportion. Interpretations of scenes ranged from graphic to naturalistic, wildly imagined to actual color. The variety was exemplary. Not to mention the artists themselves who, despite the language difference, were affable. Art transcends many barriers: visual and visceral, it extends a hand to everyone, reminding us we are all the same inside.

There were other things to do, of course. A first-night opening ceremony was followed by a group painting demo and an East-West seminar the following night. (Yours truly croaked out a few jetlagged words.) An outdoor picnic the third night preceded a bonfire and celebration. I participated in jurying a student show on the fourth night. On the fifth and final day there was a public paint-out (a long strip of paper was rolled out and sectioned on a long table, and artists were invited to paint a section), followed by a closing ceremony and a public exhibition. Because this was a government-sponsored event, the care and detail with which they coordinated the last day was breathtaking. The only time we (as in Westerners, really) do something on a similar scale is during the Olympics. Yes, I am exaggerating, but not by much. As my Australian friend and fellow painter Herman put it, “in our countries they only sponsor football players”. Sad but true, the Arts are always the first thing scratched in most budgets…

Factory Mining Town (2018)

Factory Mining Town (2018)

Boulevard of Lanterns (2018)

Boulevard of Lanterns (2018)

On that last day, the Chinese held a public presentation at the Huize Hongse Culture Exhibition Hall. There were dance performances and gifts made by children in the local schools, professional singers, and celebrity MCs (It’s Different In China). There was a short demonstration of watercolor painting and calligraphy writing. Speeches were made by government officials, after that came a presentation of the results of the juried student competition. All the artists involved in the day’s earlier paint-out were invited onstage to stand behind their section of painting. Finally, everyone was invited into the Art Museum to view all the work submitted by the painters. Back at the hotel, one last dinner with multiple toasts from various officials and organizers concluded the event. Perhaps it was just coincidence that the Chinese Lantern Festival ended that Friday; at any rate, fireworks later that night were a very appropriate ending.

Three weeks later, I am still processing my thoughts on China. I’ve started posting images on Instagram (and Facebook), and I’ll continue through the end of the month. China was interesting on many levels, to put it mildly. Art is given attention that cannot be compared at a public (as opposed to privately-funded) level: travel and accommodations taken care of in advance; readily-available shuttles and cars to drive to painting locations; intriguing or eclectic painting locations; good, local meals; and engaging interpreters. The climate in southwest China is similar to California. It was very dry and sunny, not ideal for watercolor painting but not bad either. Thankfully it was not hot. I was able to take a break one day to walk along the streets, a brief respite from painting. Outdoor markets, the sound of children over the constant barrage of cars, stray dogs, people hanging laundry out to dry. Slices of life, a familiar refrain around the world.

Factory paint out!

Factory paint out!

That is not to say there aren’t problems in China. There needs to be better education about trash disposal and pollution in general, environmental problems to the scale of 1.3 billion people. Often the beautiful countryside is littered. People also smoke everywhere, inside and outside, like it used to be in the US 25 years ago. On our way home we flew into Shanghai, and true to all the rumors about air quality, the city was having a foggy day. Well, it wasn’t fog… But I digress. You’re here for the art, right?

Final thoughts: Personally, the best part was connecting with the people in the villages we visited. At one, an old man was so happy to have me painting outside his home, he invited me in for tea! A smile, an offer to watch my easel while I wandered looking for other painting spots, an impulsive gift of rosehip tea in a bag. The Chinese people are joyful and friendly, and despite not having much of anything, open their house to you. It was a humbling experience.

A gift of rosehip tea

A gift of rosehip tea

Would I go to China again? In a heartbeat. Once you get past politics and policies you always meet wonderful people wherever you go in this world.

There is still a lot to paint in China.

 

 

 


My heartfelt gratitude goes to Mr. Li, Mr. Tu, and all the organizers of this inaugural 2018 Watercolor Exhibition in Qujing-Huize, Yunnan, China for extending the invitation to me. To the hotel staff, the Tea Lady, our drivers (!), and the various people who turned out each day to watch plein air painting, thank you. Last of all, thanks to Dande and David, whose English skills were honed during those 7 days. Xièxiè!


A VERY, VERY BRIEF TREATISE ON PAINTING IN CHINA: The watercolor tradition in Chinese painting goes back as far as 400 BC. We are all familiar with the traditional style of Chinese painting: calligraphy, court/royal vignettes, grandiose landscapes. Exposure to Western art and artists, from the late 19th century onwards, gradually influenced subject and technique. Today, invitations extended to international watercolorists maintain that creative exchange, and the benefits can be witnessed on both sides.

 

“Water Rhythm Wumeng, Painting Huize” International Watercolor Plein Air Week

I am happy to announce my participation at the International Watercolor Plein Air Week in China, from February 25 to March 3, 2018. The event takes place in Yunnan province, the tropical area in southwest China, and the itinerary will include an exhibition, demos, seminars, plein air painting and sightseeing.

I will post pictures after my trip. Here are two paintings that will be on exhibit there:

Touching The Earth (2018)

The Coulee Region, WI (2018)

The Coulee Region, WI (2018)

What is Notan?

Notan is a Japanese word that means dark-light. The principle of Notan, however, means much more than that. It is the interaction between positive and negative space. The ancient symbol of Yin and Yang is probably the most widely known Notan. The positive and negative areas make a whole through a unity of opposites. The Notan’s practical applications are for the design in painting. Understanding Notan will enable us to create value masses, tension, movement, and symmetry in our work.

A tone of grey between two value extremes (i.e. ,black and white) changes their relations and opens up a new field for creative activity. Here we think of Notan as the values of one tone against the another.

The set of three values is the basis of drawings, mezzo tint, aquatint etc. From there it is an easy step to many values. It is an exercise of great value (pun intended) to draw or paint a landscape with three values: white, black and grey.

Understanding Notan can help identify the most interesting and dominant shapes. It will also help identify the correct values and therefore create a stronger painting. Art sources to check out are Japanese Notan designs, the artists Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and Piet Mondrian, among others.

I recommend reading Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design (Dover Art Instruction) by Dorr Bothwell, Marlys Mayfield (1991).

I also recommend doing value studies before painting as it is the same exercise in determining value masses and their interaction = Notan! Other examples of strong Notan in representational art: Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Self-portrait at an early age” and James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s “Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1” (Whistler’s mother).

Best of 2017…quote, unquote.

Here are some of the most liked paintings I did last year. At least according to Instagram. The whole social media circus is strange to me, because it is tempting to actually believe that these are also my ‘best paintings’.  Often I post something and think ‘this is a real good painting’ and almost get no response. Other times I post something I think is mediocre and, voila, it’s a total hit! I have kind of given up analyzing the whole thing.

Happy New Year to everyone who is interested in my art and comes to my blog. Let’s focus on the real reasons we are creating! Remember why your are an artist in this fake world of ‘likes’. Remember the reason why you paint and look through all the bullshit! Put your phone down and take in the world with your senses.

Let’s all try to spread kindness, reach out to help others and make up for the lack of empathy and compassion in this world.

 

 

 

What is a good painting?

In my last blog post I have talked about how painting can be compared to music. Personal taste is ultimately the reason why an individual likes a painting or a song. Good art, bad art? Who’s to judge? What’s great to one person may be horrible to another. In music, there are people who love endless jazz solos and others would want to run screaming out of the room if they were exposed to it. There may be paintings that I like a lot and someone else hates them. Overall, I think that’s natural.

But there is some music and some art almost everyone can love, maybe Mozart? Paintings by Sorolla, or more contemporary, Dali? Ancient Notan art of the Japanese and Chinese. In other words, there is a consensus where most of us feel the same way about something. To take it further, most people would agree that Audrey Hepburn was a beautiful woman. So there is almost like a standard for what’s beautiful.

How would that apply to painting? I think, ultimately, it comes down to the personal style of any given artist. The artist’s personality that has its presence in their work. We can see it. Sometimes you look at some painting and you just know, that’s a Sargent or a Zorn! The masters have their own distinctive style. It is *their* own personal vision of beauty that we pick up on and it resonates within us.

Nature by itself is not art per se, it is what the artist expresses when they paint her that becomes art. A painting that has the mood of a landscape is more powerful than one where the artists tries to paint every leaf on a tree.

Art and music are also influenced by the aesthetics of a people and societies in general. Sense of beauty and taste also changes with time, although some art and music is ‘timeless’. Landscape painting is timeless, I think, because we as human beings come from nature. It is in our DNA. In music, the classics like Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin etc etc. are still liked and listened to today even though their music was written hundreds of years ago.

Painting and music – a great analogy

Both art forms (music and painting) have effects on our subconscious!

Words like sensuous and passionate, or emotional, stimulating, mood altering, uplifting, depressing… can be applied to both music and painting! An example would be to make a painting too busy. It is equal to listening to music where someone plays solo without stopping. It is tiresome and ultimately not a pleasant experience. It is like looking at a painting that is filled with too much information or no color harmony.

Emotional attributes are equally felt in the use of color in art. A painting has the highest impact when it captures some poetic mood of nature, an impression of strength and power, or an emotion in a portrait. Color sets mood. Just think of the beautiful works of the masters Corot, Whistler or Thayer. Warm colors, by nature, are exciting and stimulating but can also be irritating. Imagine being in room where all the walls have been painted scarlet red! Cool colors have quiet the opposite effect. They are restful in the emotional sense. There is a reason why most people use soft greyish tones when painting walls in their houses.

Going back to music, any music piece is only consecutively played notes between pauses which, when played without emotion, are just that: notes, scales. The actual music is in the interpretation. It is nowhere to be found in the notation. Exactly like in painting: without an emotional connection a painting is just pigment on paper or canvas. It is certainly not found in the color mix. That’s why there is the term ‘artist’ and another one for ‘painter’. When does a painter become an artist?

When a painting is ‘technical’ we may be impressed (or not), but when a painting grabs you by your emotions it becomes art. That’s the painting you keep coming back to, whereas the technical one has your attention for 30 seconds and then you loose interest!

Instead of my paintings, this time I have uploaded some of the Masters.

A good quote by artist Jean-François Millet: ‘Technique should always hide itself modestly behind the thing expressed.’