Tag Archives: how to paint loose and atmospheric

Same scene – different media – different times of the day

As you can see, I am experimenting with my art a bit right now. The fact is, I am always experimenting. I try to never get complacent, to fall into a rut and do the same thing over and over. Before you know it, as an artist, you are known to paint certain things in a certain way.
You become a ‘one trick pony’.

I avoid that at all cost. I don’t want to be put into such a drawer. I think it is important to never be static and to always change, to evolve, to move on. Artistically speaking, I mean. (Although you could make that argument for life in general as well, but that’s another blogpost… LOL)

On our last plein air outing near Bishop’s Peak, I felt I messed up my painting. At least, I didn’t like how it came out. Being there at the wrong time with the wrong light, I didn’t feel inspired but since my friends all painted I felt compelled to paint as well.

It took another trip to get better references and I feel good about the two I posted here. Both of them are not done plein air. To be honest, I had problems painting this mountain. After a few plein air attempts I figured I needed to move this into the studio to understand what it was I didn’t ‘get’. In the end, I think it was a combination of wrong light and lack of vision. I just didn’t really know how I wanted to see this painted.

The appearance of this peak changes dramatically during the course of the day, so it’s very easy to get lost. Despite all my years of painting outside, I made the cardinal mistake to follow the light. Not so much in the foreground but the light on the peak itself and promptly messed up the painting.

Repainting it in the studio made me realize what had happened. The sunrise piece is done in water-soluble oils. I used to paint lots of oils in the ’80s and ’90s and lately I have been getting back into it more. I apologize for the bad pictures, you can find a better version of the first one here. I need to learn how to take good pictures of oil paintings!

My new Sienna set-up

I used this custom-made easel for years and years but it started to fall apart, so it was time to get something new! I wanted a set-up that I can use for both watercolor and oil painting.

There are many choices out there, most of them prohibitively expensive and with someone’s name attached to it. I don’t like that so much, that’s why I went for this simple and reasonably priced Sienna Plein Air Artist Pochade Box Easel, size Medium. It is quite easy to set up. More importantly, it holds painting sizes up to 14″ x 18″, which is as big as I would ever paint outside. The angle is adjustable and I can still use my sunshade. (Another big plus for me!)

While you can use any tripod, I ended up buying the coordinating Sienna Tripod Easel as well. If you have a good tripod already, you don’t need to. I tried my old one for a while but the whole thing was just too wobbly. A stable and light tripod is, unfortunately, quiet expensive but it is money well spent: the easel has to be rigid enough for drawing and withstand some wind.

I also like that my Holbein Metal Palette 500 fits exactly into the box opening! I definitely lucked out there… It comes with a tray to store a water container or painting medium and brushes. I don’t like having to hold a palette in my hands while painting, so this is one of its best features.

A note about the weight: The Pochade was advertised as 3.5 lbs, but I weighed it and it is definitely more than 4 lbs. I can’t say I like that, but it’s still acceptable as that weight includes the tempered glass. So no complaints here. I bought the medium, which is really a small size. Overall, I good product that I would recommend to a painting friend.

Design in painting

A painting starts in our heads. An idea or something we see that ignites our inspiration. Then the design part follows, which means placing shapes and objects in a way that makes sense. We need to consider how to divide the space, how the patterns and lines relate, what to leave in and what to leave out.
The editing process can be quite difficult since nature usually supplies too much information.
For me, the best way is to ask myself whether the object supports what I want to show or not. If I am not sure, I usually leave it out.

Developing a focal point is certainly important but we wary of rules of any kind: there are plenty of ‘don’t do this, do that’ rules out there that were, over the course of painting history, often ignored by successful painters. In fact, the rule breakers were often times trail blazers for something new. Andrew Wyeth’s work (again!) comes to mind. I remember one painting where he put the subject (the girl he painted) on the bottom edge of the painting and cropping her half off. Yet, his painting worked just fine.

Following painting rules too closely can inhibit one’s creativity. Am I saying there are no rules? Not really. When we look at a painting we certainly know whether the design works or not. It’s easy to see when it doesn’t work. However, sometimes paintings don’t have large simple patterns, strong and connecting lines or the lightest and darkest values right where the focal point is. Yet they look amazing!

The only right place to put a focal point is where ‘you’ like to see it, not where a teacher told you because some lines intersect. Again, that may work but if you find another solution I would recommend going with that. It’s your painting, not theirs..

Having ‘a path through the painting’ is another tricky thing that may or may not work. There’s absolutely no guarantee that a person looking at the work will see it the way you see it.
I think educating ourselves about design is important. We need to know what has been done and what works. It’s a good idea to analyze paintings you really like and try to figure out ‘why’ you like them.
Once you know you can add those aspects to your own painting!

Composition: a path through the painting

 

We’ve all heard of the rule of thirds, but there is also another good way to create a focal point:

A path through the painting. That refers to the way line work creates a dynamic path that leads the eye around the painting. I often use it as it makes for a very interesting composition. When out in nature we have to look for these things. I think they are almost more important that the subject itself! A good painter can create a great painting out of the most drab and boring subject, i.e. a junk yard or an intersection with nothing much there but ugly buildings, just by making use of this!

That brings me to another point: it’s easy to get lost in the subject and neglect the composition. In this instance, dry docked boats with men working on them is great subject matter in itself. However, if we just show a boat on stilts and nothing else that can be a bit underwhelming to look at. After all, we just have our pathetic, two dimensional piece of paper or canvas to capture it all! So I tried to create a path to make it more interesting. I also created big areas with, what I call abstract painting. The entire hillside behind the boat and the entire foreground has an abstract quality to it. I always say, in representational painting, 80% of every painting is non-representational!

Finally, ‘pardon the dust’, so to speak: my website is currently down because it gets a much needed revamp. Hopefully it won’t take too long. Stay tuned!!

 

Vermont in October

I was really looking forward to this one and Vermont did not disappoint! Everything was wonderful: the location, the Landgrove Inn, the people and the weather! Only one rainy day out of four glorious days of sunshine and cool, crisp temperatures.

Staying at the Landgrove Inn was great. It is truly a place to get away from everything. Tucked between two mountains in southern Vermont, you won’t find a better place to recharge your batteries from your day to day hectic life! Everything was taken care of: breakfast, lunch and dinner! All we had to do was show up. Tom even catered our lunch when we were painting in a nearby town. How does it sound to just paint for a whole week with nothing else to worry about?? The Landgrove Inn is the place to do it, second to none! Thanks so much, Maureen and Tom!

Painting en plein air is the greatest teacher ever! One of the biggest issues students have is editing the scene in front of us, last week was no exception. That goes both for shapes and objects as well as color. Just as a scene is overloaded with lots of information, it is also overloaded with lots of color. Especially in Vermont in the fall! Both must be simplified.

In my workshops, I teach a way to look at a scene with the eyes of a painter! While we try to capture what’s in front of us, we must not get tempted to put in everything we see. First of all, it can’t be done anyways. Second, it won’t even look appealing. Third, why paint it at all? Why not just take a photograph and leave it at that?

I teach painting. I don’t care about watercolor. Painting is painting and in order to do it successfully, we must learn how to see right. Before adding anything to a scene I always ask myself whether it adds positively to the picture. Will it support the message of the painting? Will it add to the design and composition? Or is it just another repetition of what’s already there?

The thing to understand is the light and dark pattern first and foremost. What colors you end up using is completely secondary. If the pattern and design is good, the painting will be good!

Opacity – Transparency

One of the greatest strength of the watercolor medium is it’s transparency. It is also it’s greatest weakness, I think. Some things look great painted in a transparent manner, floral arrangements or the surface of water comes to mind. However, I find certain things hard to paint staying all transparent. Foggy backdrops, small sheep or cows in a landscape or a bright flower field in a dark meadow.

This post is purely about the practical side of painting. I don’t want to get into the whole ‘transparency = watercolor’ school of thought. It’s tiresome and a bit like discussing certain tastes in music: it cannot be done.

The longer I work in the medium, and keep in mind that I came from oils and gouache, the more I paint watercolor like I used to paint with oil and gouache.
Sure, I still try to preserve my whites but I noticed that I do a lot more layering also. Transparency first, opacity later. In certain places.

Am I concerned that I’m no longer a pure transparent watercolor painter? I shouldn’t be, when my path takes me away from it, right? Any rules in art should be questioned. That doesn’t mean I am painting gouache paintings now, transparency certainly has it’s place. As with many things in life, I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

I also have to confess that I am a huge Andrew Wyeth fan and experimenting with some of his techniques. A student of mine sent me a description of his use of egg tempera that was made available during an exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. Fascinating stuff!

As an artist I believe we should always grow and never be static. Many artists out there are ‘stuck’, because they became known for something or a certain way of painting. It’s hard to change that because there are people following your art and you might loose them if you change too much. Personally, I am not concerned. I am not creating art to have ‘followers’. I am painting because that’s what I do. Even if I never sold anything, I’d still paint. Gotta keep the priorities straight!

When is a painting finished.. and other musings

As I come to the end of a painting, this question always rears it’s ugly head: what else does it need?
The one after that I hate even more: couldn’t I have done a better job with this or that section? Is it a good painting? how good? My philosophy here is that I did the best I could do with what I have and who I am right now. I move on to another painting. This becomes very apparent to me when I look at work I did a few years back. It was the best I could do at the time. End of story.
You cannot ‘make’ a masterpiece. One day it may happen or it may never happen. It is a waste of time to think ‘this is it, this time I’ll do it’.
Doesn’t work.

Lack of decision and endless fiddling with the current painting is a harmful thing. You have to learn from the mistakes you can spot at the end and make amends, but the energy must go into a fresh effort! Learn to use your time wisely.

A word about talent: to any artist who has slaved over years to acquire his skills in painting, it is the most irritating thing to hear that your ability is just a ‘gift’. Talent is the first step, you have to have it. Absolutely. But nobody who paints amazing paintings has done so from day one. They put thousands of hours into it. There is no formula in art that will not break down as soon as the effort behind it ceases.
A good analogy is athletics: do you know how many hours pro figure skaters or tennis players practice every day? No need to answer that. Talent may help get you to the elite, I don’t dispute that. Even if I practiced tennis 8 hours a day from now on, I would never play like Roger Federer. I know that, I just don’t have enough talent.
But to say as artists we just have ‘this gift’ is ignoring how much work we’ve put into it.

Of course nowadays there are many who put more effort into their social media page instead of their art, but that’s another blog post. Or not.