Tag Archives: how to paint loose and atmospheric

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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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).

Small on-site sketches…or….little paintings!

I know that Jeremy Lipking and Scott Christensen teach the importance of making small on-site sketches whenever possible. I even heard that in Scott’s plein air workshops, students only get 45 minutes to finish a painting on each location visited! When some of the best painters have great advice, it certainly is a good idea to consider it!

The advantages are obvious and multi-fold:

  • It may be less intimidating to start a small sketch than a bigger painting.
  • Despite the relatively small size (only 5″x6″ or so), the painting process is the same. You still  need to work out values, color, drawing and edge just like in a bigger piece!
  • You’re going home with 3–6 paintings instead of just one (that you may or may not like).
  • Last but not least, you have multiple on-site sketches from which you can do a bigger studio piece from!

Oh, and here’s another one: often there isn’t enough time to finish before the light changes too much, but it’s almost always possible to finish a 5″x6″ piece. These sketches should really take no longer than 30–45 minutes each, no matter what medium you’re painting in.

I don’t even bother with an underpainting when doing these in oils. Since I am a watercolor guy, I just jot down a few lines with pencil and paint ‘alla prima’ (direct painting). The basic principle for Alla Prima painting is to observe, mix and put down the right amount of paint in the right place with the right value. If possible with little or no adjusting, changing etc.

Easier said than done! Practice, practice, practice!

A Most Songful Stream!

The first picture was the reference photo used to paint ‘A Most Songful Stream’. The location is one of the most visited places in Yosemite National Park, so painting en plein air was out of the question at this spot. Too many people and to make matters worse, this view is from a busy bridge. I thought it would be interesting to see how it was edited and simplified to become more manageable and paint-able!

Notice how the (point-and-shoot) camera always overexposes whites. The water certainly has some whites especially where it cascades down, but it wasn’t nearly as bleached out as in the picture.

I have added mist from the main falls which are located behind the dark trees on the right. I have also added a few bigger boulders as a foreground. The trees on the left side were given less attention as they don’t add much to the painting. I simplified the rocks so as not to over-model them and lastly, I added some dappled lights in the darker sections.

By painting sections this seemingly complicated scene can be painted effectively. Still, it is not an easy painting. I always look for the light and dark patterns and exaggerate them, that way I maintain a clear light path and order in my paintings. With flowing water, I try to pick up on its energy and make use of that as well.

This painting will be part of the first Annual Waterworks Exhibition at Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, May 1 to June 5. Please visit if you’re in the area! Click for more information.

Click to see this as an animation and more of my work on Instagram.

Now that winter’s over, it’s time for all-day plein air! My students have asked what equipment I use, so here it is for you: I use Daniel Smith pigments and Arches watercolor blocks. I paint with DaVinci Casaneo brushes using a Holbein Metal Palette 500. My portable/travel set-up includes the Sienna Plein Air Artist Pochade Box Easel, size Medium and the Sienna Tripod Easel. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

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!