Thursday, October 29, 2015

Heresies and Pharisees

At some point, it was decided "opaque" paint had no place in "transparent" watercolor. White is considered especially heretical...As though you're not an honest watercolorist if you don't paint around every little white.
 It puts me in mind of the Pharisees - a first century religious sect that were fussier than a car wash bill changer.

They felt the 10 Commandments weren't comprehensive enough, so they invented extra rules. Like not eating eggs laid on Saturday because the chicken was performing work on the sabbath...don't want to be an accessory to a sin that egregious do you?
 I've already explained watercolor AIN'T transparent and never was. Pigment is pigment.
There are legitimate uses for white or opaque accents. Sure, paper whites look great. They're part of watercolor's unique look. Get 'em if you can. But some stuff is too tiny or complicated to paint around without creating clunky edges or areas nearby.
 Using opaque accents as positive, constructive marks - not as correction fluid - should be considered good painting if it produces the desired results.
 Sargent used paint opaquely and thickly enough that it cracked over time. Check this one: He used opaque accents for the yellow leaves in the shrubs.

That's what I mean by positive, constructive marks: He meant those, he wasn't fixing boo-boos. The laundry is classic paint-around. What do you bet his picture was the first of this oft-seen watercolor subject?
 These Bedouins have thick white highlights on the folds of their garments. Is it so bad? Are those great faces diminished by his methods?

 Or how about these gondoliers from his picture of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice? A watercolor Pharisee might think there's enough white paint there to have him stoned. I say it's a great gesture drawing.

Or how about Trevor Chamberlain here: Little  deliberate accents like the ship name, cables, gunwhales and such sit just fine with what's otherwise a classic application of watercolor. That mast on the bridge for example: Trying to paint the background around it would have sacrificed the lovely granulation of the color and the area would become a distraction.

Let's just paint good pictures...In painting, God may have spotted us  the only area in life where the ends can justify the means and nobody gets hurt physically, morally or spiritually. Why complicate it...?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Jello salad, mud and transparency

By way of answering a question on the last post's comments, I thought we'd get into "transparency" in watercolor and the problem of "mud".
 First, WATERCOLORS AREN'T TRANSPARENT..!! Really...The very same pigments are used in watercolors, oils, pastels, acrylics, even house paint and lipstick. They aren't little bits of colored glass that light can pass through. Check the pigment numbers on your tubes - same PB 29 ultramarine blue in oil or watercolor.
 So why do they look transparent? Because we're viewing what might be called micro-pointillism. When the paint is applied, the water is initially on the surface of the paper before soaking in. The tiny pigment particles are kept suspended by something called Brownian Motion before settling to the paper's surface. When they do, they distribute themselves fairly evenly, owing to the aforementioned Brownian action.

 Like these scattered bearings, light can bounce off the white paper AND the pigment particles so it appears transparent. 

Yes, people talk about "sedimentary" and "transparent" colors but what that really means is some pigments are just bigger than others if seen under a microscope. The more recent pigments tend to be smaller (having been manufactured for use in spray equipment) revealing more white paper and giving the appearance of transparency. All pigments are sedimentary - none of them can hover.

Why do oils look opaque then? Because in watercolor we're looking at a THIN layer with pigment particles side by side. In oil we're looking at a THICK viscous layer with particles stacked over one another like this...forgive me... jello "salad". Try not to hurl.

  I'll avoid launching into a diatribe about the far too liberal Midwestern view of what constitutes "salad". And their version of biscuits and gravy? Don't get me started...
  Let's talk about "MUD". 
In watercolor, what gets called mud is just TOO MANY SUBSEQUENT APPLICATIONS OF PAINT TO THE SAME SPOT. All those white spaces between the particles just get covered up - so it looks opaque...because it is. Look at this sample below: I went around my palette and mixed ALL 14 COLORS TOGETHER. That's the top color. It's an interesting grey that could even be used...for rocks, maybe. Point is: All 14 pigments are distributed NEXT to each other.
 Below it I applied one color, let it dry and then applied the next as a glaze and so on. I never made it to all 14 colors. Sample 2 is only 9 colors but look how murky, because they're ON TOP of each other. Tap or pinch it up larger to see.

 So the trick is learning to mix your colors pretty close the first time. Glazing is to get a specific color over another. It's ability to correct has limits.
 Next post we'll address proper use of opaque paint in watercolor.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Limited palettes

 Limited palettes are useful but which colors do you pick? You really can use just 3 colors with watercolor and tackle a lot of subjects (in fact you can paint some subjects with 2 colors...really!). In oils it's a LOT harder (in fact you need at least a 4th color, white). For this post we'll address watercolor and maybe hit oils another time.
Ease of mixing and reproducing those mixes.
Harmonious color

Limitations :
The darkest color in the triad is the darkest value you can mix - in fact adding one of the other colors will  lighten it to some degree. It's necessary to match your triad to your subject for it's value range. Usually the blue is the darkest component, so a triad with cerulean wouldn't be ideal for a subject with strong darks.

With any triad you need the primaries or their rough equivalents to mix secondaries. Regardless which 3 colors you choose, at least one secondary will be dull; that is, not a true orange, green or purple. Often 2 will be dull and all 3 will be dull if you select a low chroma triad, like ultramarine, burnt sienna and yellow ochre. It's also necessary to match your triad to your subject for color chroma. The bias of your components will affect your mixes: A violet bias red like alizarin makes clear purples but dull oranges. Cad red makes better oranges but earthy purples. Prussian or pthalo blue bias toward green so that's their strong suit in mixes. Ultramarine has the edge with purples.

Some triad palettes with their strengths and limitations:

Ultramarine, burnt sienna and yellow ochre
: Good natural earth tones and greys. Very dull orange, no real purple and your greens will be medium to low chroma. Darkest color is ultramarine  + burnt sienna which can go nearly black. A very traditional palette and surprisingly versatile despite its limitations. All 3 colors lift easily if that's a requirement.

Ultramarine, alizarin or equivalent and cadmium or hansa yellow: Vibrant purples. Vibrant greens except in the blue green range. A slightly dull orange which can almost mimic burnt sienna. Strongest dark is purple-ish. Good earth tones can definitely be mixed from all 3 components but requires care.

Prussian blue, alizarin and hansa yellow: Very vibrant greens including the bluish greens. Good purples, same orange as above and similar purplish dark. Substitute pthalo blue and quinacridone rose for a highly transparent looking palette. Again great earth tones are possible but tricky to mix.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Water to paint ratio

 The last post was a fun but hopefully practical one with a pre Halloween twist. This time, just nuts and bolts.
One thing that makes watercolor hard is gauging how dark (or light) a color is on the palette...before you put that virtually irreversible mark on the paper. This puddle of ultramarine blue appears darker than the yellow nearby but on paper they are pretty similar in value.

Rather than spending years of trial and error there are some things you can do to to get your mix just right (or close enough to successfully adjust it on the paper).
 Sure, you can keep a test sheet nearby but its use is limited. You need to see a color in situ to judge for certain...that almost requires painting two pictures side by side. The best use for a test sheet is to make sure your initial light values are near or far enough from the white of the paper to provide the desired level of contrast for highlights or white passages.

 Getting a feel for the paint's consistency is the trick.
 First, tilt the palette a bit. Is the paint runny? Is it slow moving? Or does it stay put?
The images below are on a palette tilted about 15-20 degrees.

Loose, runny paint will make a pale to medium value mark (a lighter medium most of the time).
Slow moving paint makes a medium to dark-medium value mark. Note the deep end of the runny ultramarine puddle looks as dark as the paint that's moving slowly - not on the paper, though.

Paint that stays put is usually your darkest value. Here's runny paint compared to paint that stays put.

How it looks and feels on the brush
RUNNY PAINT will look and feel juicy in the brush tuft. The tuft will swell up and you'll feel the weight of it in a large, fully loaded brush. It will drip if you're not careful.
SLOW MOVING PAINT won't fill out the tuft as much but it will look moist. It rarely drips without tapping the brush.
PAINT THAT STAYS PUT looks drier and tends to be on the surface of the hair, not between the hairs from capillary action.

This should get you in the ballpark. Put a touch on the paper...still not just right?
IF ITS TOO DARK: quickly dip your brush tip into the water (don't dunk it) and bring it to the paint. You should be able to adjust value easily as you paint along.
IF ITS TOO LIGHT: immediately touch your brush into the color in question and bring it to the mark. If you're not dawdling the water in your paint will still be mostly on the paper's surface and it should blend in nicely.

 Now you can see, there's something to be said for mixing a bit darker than you may think needed. For starters, it usually dries lighter anyway. Next, it's easier to bring water to lighten a mix accurately than to darken it by bringing additional paint...especially since your colors are usually a  mix. Darkening a mix is tricky, especially when it's a medium to dark value. It usually leads to huge puddles of paint that don't get used and meanwhile your picture is drying up while you mix. All that leads to a condition called hydrodyschromo anxiety, a known trigger for other dysfunctional behaviors.

Another sly move is to mix your color darker deliberately and then put a bit more water on one side  of the mix - not in the middle. Now you have range of values to dip into (great for green mixes when you often need a variety of values).

 This all requires a few tries to be sure - but not the years of trying to get it by osmosis or something.

Brains and eyeballs

No, I'm not referring to some B movie sci fi starring John Agar. I mean the fight between what we KNOW and what we can be an epic struggle while painting. There's a tendency to paint outlines that fade into shadow because we know the edge is there - even if we don't see it. Yes, you're right...if you look at that edge you will see it. But that's because your looking at it...Confused yet?
 Wherever the eye "slithers" to, that area snaps into full focus. Whatever the lighting conditions, your eye adjusts. The brain finds these edges and says "Aha! Hiding is futile! Prepare to be rendered!
The result is a rigid, space-less picture whose inaccurate illumination is bland and evenly lit like a mad scientist's laboratory. Or the inside of a convenience store. Life is not evenly lit. Night follows day. Your chances improve if you propose to a girl in ambiance lighting. Even God hangs out in thick darkness (Deuteromony 5:22).
 What I'm trying to say is "don't find your lost edges". It's natural to look at whatever you're trying to paint...but remember it comes into focus when you do. If it's not the focal point of your picture then you have to see it as it appears when you DO look at your focal point. Sometimes that means part of it melts into shadow. Many people are reluctant to paint one object into another or its background. They miss how multiple objects (or parts of objects and their surroundings) can become a single composite shape. Their brain overlord tells them "you know these are discrete things. You must define them". It controls their seeing so it's not their own.

We must rebel and overthrow this tyrannical reign...

...boy, I need to rent some different movies! Let's look at some examples instead. Even those these teapots are photos, we can "find" the edges in shadow on the color example. The B&W image makes the lost edge more obvious.

 When you're walking around, look for these lost edges. This may mean you have to turn off the general illumination found in most homes and use the ambient light from your windows, 19th century style (and we wonder why that era produced so many good painters).

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The importance of VALUES

 If you're reading this, thank an artist. All this tech and Internet stuff wasn't invented by Steve Jobs or Al Gore...I say it was the guy who did the Lascaux cave paintings.
 Once upon a time there were two guys in that cave. Let's call them Og and Gog (depicted here by artist Leah Fanning. Note the artsy guy has red hair).

Gog was usually busy sharpening sticks. We'll come back to him later. Og noticed dark marks on a light surface could remind you of real life stuff.
I'm always saying HOW IMPORTANT VALUE IS but Og had also discovered a primitive binary code if you will, thus laying the foundations for art and the digital revolution. With just values. 
  Later on,  weavers got fancy with contrasting yarns and figured out "if they pop up here and dive underneath there we can make neat patterns and pictures". Rugs began to illustrate stories, clothes could make you look amazing. Everybody loved it but such weaving was time consuming.
Much later still, Joseph Jaquard invented a punchcard loom to make it easy and fast.

 Charles Babbage saw that and designed an analytical machine that used punch cards.

You probably know the rest: Someone added electricity and yada, yada (that's Hebrew I think)...the device you're using.
 Back to Gog...our "stick sharpener". Whenever a descendant of Og creates something there always seems to be a descendant of Gog nearby, finding a way to use it to destroy something...or get a leg up on somebody.

I can't think of a single thing that hasn't in some way been weaponized by someone.
It's a tale of two mindsets. Different values. Values are important...and I need to spend more time drawing and less time checking the news!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Getting rid of junk

The last few days I've been getting high. Not what you're drugs or Plymouth gin or anything like that. I rented one of those big dumpster thingies and started pitching out stuff.

It's liberating. The activity produces great neuro-chemicals, I can tell you. If enough of it builds up in my system I may even have the energy to clean the new empty space where all that junk once was! It seems some of that stuff, like me, put on weight over the past 20 years.
 Anyway it got me thinking about the same thing in painting. It IS liberating to leave out useless stuff. Though a lot of time this doesn't mean actually eliminating something so much as letting it melt into its surrounding zone of value. Especially the farther back in space it is. Nothing flattens space like having everything in the scene rendered to the same degree of finish. Sometimes I get that right. This oil pastel sacrifices a lot of foliage detail (especially on the far bank) to emphasize the day's color and the nice shapes.

This watercolor suggests everything and defines almost nothing - but I think one can identify what's what and both images convey their weather and light.

When I first started out, it was hard to shake the notion that "if it's there I should paint every bit of it...and leave it where it is". I knew good paintings when I saw them...but assumed REALLY GOOD artists just lucked into better composed, more paintable scenery than me. I drove around a LOT looking for the ideal vista. Fortunately gas was 93 cents a gallon back then.
 Now I'm getting excited about simplified compositions that let value or color or shape do the talking. As our culture becomes more photo-centric, perhaps painting should become more "painterly"...its own kind of thing. Maybe not to the point of total abstraction necessarily...just indicative of human perception, as opposed to device capture.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Executable images

To paint, your subject has to be EXECUTABLE...
...that is, something you can render in your chosen medium.

Lots of things LOOK good but not everything makes a good painting. It's easy to lose your head over something enticing that won't compose well, or has color issues or...any number of pit falls.
Ideally there should be discernible, eye catching contrasts. Also, some variety of color, shape, size and texture. In short, IT HAS TO BE TRANSLATABLE INTO MARKS YOU CAN MAKE, AND THE VIEWER CAN MAKE SENSE OF.
Take this example:

 It's probably a great place to canoe or hike but as a painting, mmm...not so much. The foreground, middle and distance are nearly the same value. The water, land and sky separate into bands and close areas are tangent to far areas. There's not much variety of texture either and the shapes are quite similar.
 Contrast it with this similar subject:

Now there's more variety of value between the foreground, middle and distance. The shapes are more varied, less tangential and "bite into each other", interlocking the areas. That all draws the eye THROUGH rather than ACROSS, as in the first image. There's smooth water, spiky trees, round rocks...differences you can RENDER, rather than fussily trying to adjust the micro differences of highly similar things.
 Sometimes a subject just IS "banded" or one texture abounds or the foreground, middle ground and sky are highly separated (sounds like Iowa, you say?). Here's a relentlessly horizontal subject with potentially monotonous textures.

 I've tried to counter the horizontality of the land with diagonal motion in the clouds and grass. The sky is soft, hopefully contrasting with the earth. I've "bitten" into the sky with a stem or two of grass and bitten the shadow shapes in the beans into the grass. Notice the wisp of cloud at upper left echoes the grass stem at lower right. Echoed shapes are a way to subliminally interlock areas and draw the eye from one place to another. See how many you can spot.