Tag Archives: Painting

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).


Watercolor portraits

Almost like formal portraiture? Not really. While painted somewhat formally, I am mainly experimenting with expressions.

These come from photos I have taken of people on the street. Some look lost in thought, sad, haunted, sometimes expressionless. Commuter robots (comm u-bots). When walking around downtown or places like NY you’ll see them everywhere…

I don’t like photographs of people posing. Especially in portraits you see people pose a lot. They are too aware of the camera. It looks staged. I like the candid photos, where people look more natural, unaware that someone is taking a picture. These portraits are not very big. The face of the girl with the long blond hair is only 3 inches long. The other one is bigger.

As for technique, these take multiple glazes to get the right color and value. Direct painting (alla prima) is, unfortunately, not really possible in watercolor so I normally prefer to do work like this in oil. As in oil painting I only used black, white, cad red, raw sienna and ultramarine blue. That’s it.

It is a nice challenge and these can certainly be improved. Always something to learn! As artists I think it is very important to keep evolving, keep pushing. I am considered a landscape painter in watercolor but I refuse to be put in some drawer. Never be static and predictable. Or known for one thing. It’s too easy to burn out!

The art world is becoming increasingly homogenized. The only way to stand out is to do your own thing, not copy other painters’ styles and subjects. Workshops can help only if you get the guidance to find yourself (your own voice) or at least be helped in that direction. Pick workshops carefully! Ask the venue about the instructor and their teaching style. Don’t fall for reputation. There are some with big names out there but they don’t know how to teach you a thing!

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!

Why paint…

To continue with the musings about growing and evolving as an artist, I happen to come across a website about poetry that posted a letter by one of my favorite poets Rainer Maria Rilke. It is one of a collection of 10 letters written by the famous poet RMR (1875-1926) to a young officer cadet at the Military Academy in Vienna, who wanted Rilke to critique the quality of his poetry so he could decide whether a literary career made sense for him. The correspondence lasted from 1902 to 1908

I decided to include this because in his first letter, Rilke’s comments really hit home with me and it can be directly applied to the art of painting. It is as if he wrote this yesterday where in fact the letter dates back to 17 February 1903 in Paris!!

Read this excerpt and replace the word ‘poem’ with ‘painting’ and ‘writer’ with ‘painter’. The interesting thing to me is to compare it to social media today where so many artists post their paintings in hopes to get ‘likes’, in other words, looking outwards for recognition and approval. Nothing has changed! We just don’t send physical letters anymore. (Emphasis in italics is mine.)

“You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts. Well now, since you have given me permission to advise you, I suggest that you give all that up. You are looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one.

There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.

Then draw near to nature. Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose.

If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life. Complain to yourself. Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth. For the creative artist there is no poverty—nothing is insignificant or unimportant.
If, as a result of this turning inward, of this sinking into your own world, poetry should emerge, you will not think to ask someone whether it is good poetry. And you will not try to interest publishers of magazines in these works. For you will hear in them your own voice; you will see in them a piece of your life, a natural possession of yours. A piece of art is good if it is born of necessity. This, its source, is its criterion; there is no other.

Therefore, my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth. At its source you will find the answer to the question, whether you must write. Accept it, however it sounds to you, without analyzing. Perhaps it will become apparent to you that you are indeed called to be a writer. Then accept that fate; bear its burden, and its grandeur, without asking for the reward, which might possibly come from without. For the creative artist must be a world of his own and must find everything within himself and in nature, to which he has betrothed himself.
It is possible that, even after your descent into your inner self and into your secret place of solitude, you might find that you must give up becoming a poet. As I have said, to feel that one could live without writing is enough indication that, in fact, one should not.”

Interesting stuff, isn’t it! I encourage you to read the whole letter here.

The Art Spirit, Part II

When I was interviewed by Paul Sullivan, editor with Artist Daily and a great watercolor artist himself, he mentioned that my interview was part of a series called  ‘Masters of American watercolor’. I was seriously concerned, because I don’t see myself being a ‘master’. Far from it, actually!  As if on queue I found a passage in Robert Henri’s book that talks about this very subject:

“He who is master of what he has today will be master of what he has tomorrow. An artist is a master at the start, if he is ever going to be one. Masters are people who use what they have.”

“Work always as if you were a master, expect from yourself a masterpiece. It’s a wrong idea that a master is a finished person. Masters are very faulty, they haven’t learned everything and they know it. Finished persons are very common – people who are closed up, quite satisfied that there is little or nothing more to learn.”
Pretty interesting, and I love this one:

“A small boy can be a master. I have met masters now and again, some in studios, others anywhere, working on a railroad, running a boat, playing a game, selling things. Masters are such as they had. They are wonderful people to meet. Have you never felt yourself ‘in the presence’ when with a carpenter or a gardener? They do not say, ‘oh, I am only a gardener, therefore not much can be expected from me’. They say, or seem to say, ‘I am a Gardener!’
These are masters, what more could anyone be!”


A different kind of painting tip!

Workshops teach techniques. Every workshop instructor will have their own method of painting. So you might be taught to never do ‘this’ in one workshop, and to absolutely do it in another.
Art has no rules. Anything can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, often only depending on timing or intention.

There is too much talk about ‘best painter’, ‘master painter’, this and that. People being put on pedestals, like they’re deities. If you classify people you create hierarchies and that creates suffering.
Looking for validation outside yourself is tricky business. If you try to paint like so and so, you’re setting yourself up to suffer because you’re not so and so.
Same thing happens if you’re painting to be ‘liked’. It is certainly good to get validation from your peers (notice I did not say followers) but not if you’re painting to impress someone or to get into competitions. Again, you’re setting yourself up for suffering! Be mindful of your motivations. Look inside of you for guidance.

I’d love to quote my favorite poet here when asked by a student if his work is good or not:
‘A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate and value: there is no other.’
Rainer Maria Rilke (Letters to a Young Poet)

In other words, it comes from a deeper place inside you. You have to paint, you have no choice! You will find subject matter that moves you, because what you love you’ll paint better. You need to express yourself that way and that in turn makes your art real.

The California challenge! NOT looking at the bright side..

As a plein air painter I get to see and know the state pretty well. One of the most depressing things about California is the fact that anywhere you go, everything is fenced in. No exceptions. Even if you drive into the most remote areas, there’s apparently still enough money to put up fences, making it all but impossible to paint from anywhere else than the road.
That way many of the most beautiful vistas cannot be visited because the owners of the land put up barbed wire and signs that threaten legal action. A recurring theme in the USA.

Having said that, it’s not like that everywhere in America. In Vermont, for instance, you can park at the side of the road and with few exceptions walk anywhere you want. No barbed wires there. California? Forget it unless it’s BLM land, state owned land or a National
park. We live in this huge state and 90% of the land is inaccessible! Kind of sad, isn’t it?

So for those of you who come from out of state and especially visitors from other countries:
You may look at the beautiful rolling hills but you may not walk around and explore! Private property, no trespassing!

In Europe it’s completely different. I painted in France so much in 2008 and 2009 and never had a problem. Park at the side of the road, take gear and walk into the fields. Nobody cares. Sometimes I had to park my vehicle in someone’s vineyard, no problem either! I just put a sign on the dash (artist painting in the area) end of story. Imagine that here. Your car would be towed and they would sue you for trespassing, just because you want to paint ‘their’ land.

There’s a gynecologist in the area who actually threatened to sue an artist for painting his estate on a hill off of Highway 46. When she painted it, she wasn’t even on his land.
Her painting was on exhibition in a nearby vineyard where he spotted it on the
wall and demanded it taken off. When the owner of the vineyard refused, he pulled it down himself and took it with him. The artist had to actually call the police to get her painting back. True story!

I know this is an extreme case but you’ve got to wonder! If we don’t revere art and artists, what kind of a society are we?

I don’t want to be completely negative here because there are many people out there who welcome artists on their property. Even if they don’t know anything about art, they understand that artists play an important role in a society and they try to be supportive. My deepest thanks goes to them!
It is never a good idea to generalize everyone, but I am trying to make a point here.
In California, the fact that you own property means that you can put barbed wire around it and keep people out. In Germany and France you own the property also but you have no problem with someone walking across it and let them enjoy it as well.
The question is, why are two seemingly similar societies so different in that regard?