Tag Archives: Art

Watercolor vs. Oil

This is a scene I have painted many times. It is near where I live and to me, represents our area to the dot. Rolling hills, pastures and a barn setting. Since I started more oil painting again I thought I’d give it a shot in that medium. The watercolor was painted two years ago.

The oil is from a slightly different vantage point and it is also a different time of the year. The watercolor was painted in mid winter, when it is ‘greenest’ around here. That’s right, in California, it gets green in the winter because most of our rainfall happens then!

The oil was just recently painted in the spring. The green on the hills has already changed, turning a red-ish brown. That happens pretty much as soon as the rains stop. This is, however, my favorite time to paint them. In the winter, it is sort of a carpet of intense green (think New Zealand) and is quite difficult to do in a painting. The painting can become overloaded with sameness. To me the watercolor was harder to do for that reason.

Both mediums convey their own mood and feel. This will be one of those places that I’ll paint
over and over. Different times of the day and in different seasons.

Painting plein air, I believe the goal should be to capture something of the scene and not ‘make up’ something different. It is true that sometimes we have to change things around a bit, because mother nature just put too much information there. However, to me there is no point in painting plein air if I don’t really paint what’s there. In this case, it was the study of the hills and sky that make the painting. The interaction of it all. How it’s all one! If I change everything, why go out at all? I can take a picture and do all that in the studio.

To get the color and value right it is essential to observe right. The hills have colors of the sky in it and if the clouds are low enough, they will have some of the hill color in it! Notice how the greens change. The shadows, the sunlit parts, the foreground field. All different! I am so blown away by little things like that! It really excites me, such a miracle…well, not really but I find it endlessly fascinating! I can almost feel the scene…

To say it in the simplest most straight forward way: to paint well, all you have to do is observe right, mix the right color with the right value and put it in the right place. Done!

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Breaking the rules!

We’ve all learned painting rules during our Academic training or in workshops when we started out.
I always remember Kevin McPherson’s famous line: ‘Black in sunlight is lighter than white in shadows’. The other famous one which I can’t remember right now who said it: ‘the darkest light in the light has to be lighter than the lightest dark in the shadow. Keep the light and dark tonal ranges separate to show realistic form.’

How come there are so many paintings out there where those rules are seemingly disregarded?

That’s what Andrew Wyeth called ‘going beyond the facts’. Looking at the images below it’s easy to see that the value range in these pictures must’ve been at least partly invented. The tall foreground grass is too dark even though it’s obviously in the sun and the back hill is way dark for a more dramatic effect.

wyeth

wyeth2

 

It’s even more obvious in the second image: why are the blanket and the flower patch on the lower right so dark even though they are obviously in the sunlight?

The best answer is simply that art should be about expression and that fact is often completely forgotten or missed by many painters. I think it has to do with the fact that the general public judges art by how realistic it is painted. You often hear the phrase: oh wow, that looks just like a photograph. Like that’s the best thing ever! To some that is more of an insult than a compliment (harshly spoken of course) because what is the ARTISTIC point of copying something verbatim, even if you achieve photo realism? What message is the painting carrying? Where’s your personality in it?

Having said that, most artists start out that way. We are obsessed with copying it the way it is and that’s ok. It is a process and we develop and grow as artists. Further along in our art endeavor we might ask ourselves ‘what am I trying to say’, ‘why do I paint this scene’ and ‘what would my message be’?

I continue to go through phases like that. Sometimes a painting I paint looks overly realistic to me and then I don’t really like it. Sometimes it has a painterly quality or feel to it and still looks real (but only if you step back) and I like that best!

Check out this image I found of Wyeth painting on top of his jeep. Super cool! I love how the watercolors drip down the hood and of course the puppy patiently waiting in the car! My dog would try to climb onto my lap making painting impossible!

andrew-wyeth-plein-air2

Value range in painting!


A big problem in painting is that we can’t achieve absolute true values. The actual bright light is much brighter than we can ever achieve with white paint or white of paper! After all, it’s just pigment on paper or canvas! The best we can do is paint the correct values from lightest to darkest to achieve a realistic feel. Once that is done the painting will ‘read’ right. It doesn’t matter if it is not the ‘true range’. Working against the light produces strong contrast and highlights on tops of objects. Working with the light produces close values within the object but contrast against the background. Watercolor lends itself better to the former, simply because we do not have to paint around so many objects to preserve light.

Values can only be analyzed by comparison. Any brushstroke will look dark on white paper because there’s nothing else there. Quality comes from correct value relationships which in turn express the true feeling of light!

Some painters paint with a b&w value scale next to their color palette to help determine what the values of various colors are in b&w. Color can be very deceptive as to value. Sometimes, when it’s vivid like a bright red, it can seem lighter in value than what it really is! During the impressionist era painters tried to paint true values by applying super thick paint on the theory that the natural light would catch and therefore raise it’s value. When this was first done, critics called it a trick. Does it actually work? You be the judge…

Artists can, through color and value, attach elegance to common subjects.

An artist once said: in painting, value does all the work, color gets all the credit! So true!

Aspirations of an artist

‘Nowhere in the world of art education has technique been so foolishly substituted for true meaning, self expression, and knowledge as in the field of watercolor’
Edward Reep, 1983 (from the book Content of Watercolor)

Harsh words from Mr. Reep, but he has a point. Students often don’t seem to move on from materials and technique. Part of the problem is that people seem to think they learn how to paint by attending workshops. I don’t mean to downplay that a workshop can help. Some just take so many or even worse, some actually only paint in workshop settings, never anywhere else! The art of painting is learned by painting!

Well, it all depends on what goals we have, doesn’t it? I guess it’s ok to just paint as a pastime. However, I think that someone who paints three times a year should not have the right to call themselves an artist, any more so than someone who thinks they’re a musician when they only play their instrument every leap year and otherwise just listen to music.
To think and talk about painting doesn’t count. To look at painting images on facebook doesn’t either. We actually have to do it.

The more we paint, the closer we get to the real reason of why we paint. We no longer focus on the ‘how’ but more on the ‘why’.

When we start it’s quite normal that we’re preoccupied with technique and materials. We inhale ‘how to paint this and that’-books and attend workshops. We have to start somewhere. After a while, the focus starts shifting. At least in theory.

As the years go by I started thinking more and more about why I paint. In the beginning I even had problems articulating it, or finding a good reason at all! Sure, I used to be a professional illustrator. Sure, I painted since I was a child on and off. Sure, I studied painting with an Italian master painter, etc. etc. But are those real reasons? Motivation enough to keep at it today, after all these years? Do I love it that much?

Everyone should ask themselves the question why they paint, I think. Painting ultimately should be about expression. A painter, even a representational painter, needs to have a vision that goes beyond copying shapes that we encounter in nature or take pictures of. We need to have something to say with our art. It’s a different path for each and everyone of us. It’s a different life for each and every one of us. Therefore our art and what we express should be highly personal and intimate. Despite social media, painting will remain a solitary pursuit where only the end product is shared with others and even that is not for certain.

Keep it that way.

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!

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!