Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Paint the Point day 1

Here is this mornings pix. The organizers for this event give us a GENEROUS footprint and the surrounding country is nice. I chose this early when the light was a bit more hazy and chased the light a bit...shouldn't do that but today it went somewhere good. That doesn't always happen. 11x14 oil on panel.
OR MAYBE NOT...apparently Picasa has eliminated the the feature that lets you upload new photos...WTFondue?

Lots of heavy hitters from MN, WI and Chicago here so the challenge is a good one. Hoping to get in another before tonight's Nocturne event.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Dubuque workshop

This past weekend I had the privilege of leading a plein air workshop at some of Dubuque's most scenic locations. Here's Barb Grimmer in a shady lane at Eage Point Park

The weather was delightfully cool - yes, those are folks wearing jackets on July 1...!

 The gist of what I wanted to teach was how to see on location. The sole trick to plein air is never look at anything in isolation - always compare it to something else to see where it is, how big it is, how dark or light, how dull or bright it is...and so on. Think about it: So many artists can copy a photo reference in the studio quite well but outdoors they crash and burn. Why? Because they COMPARE their work to the reference until it matches. Outside they don' I'm trying to inculcate the habit of COMPARATIVE SEEING. It's not easy - I have to make myself do it with every new picture. It was new to most of the group but they did quite well. I could show several examples but I've chosen this one by Leslie Leavenworth because I had good closeups of the work and the subject.

We had a great time thanks to organizational skills of Wes Heitzman and Mississippi River Art Workshops. The only mishap was John Evans' unscheduled attempt at sidewalk art - his easel drawer let go spilling his entire pastel assortment on the pavement. The final day in the Dubuque Arboretum had us dodging not one but two weddings! Here's the group (minus 5 who had to leave a bit early) just before a wedding photo shoot sent us packing.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Time for a new palette?

Here's an oddity...

No, it's not a diptych. The image on the left was painted in August of 2014 at Oakland Mills. Jessica Kirby shot this photo of me doing it:
 The image on the right is from this May. The objects nearly line up but then they should; They were only painted about 25 feet apart. It's the nearly identical colors that makes me wonder if I'm in a palette rut?
 Granted the weather was similarly drizzly. This time I shot a picture of Jessica and artist Cathryn Layer sur le motif. Hey, maybe we're a movement and Oakland Mills is our La Grenouillere?

 Anyway, I've been using a standard Split Primary palette: two blues, two yellows, two reds plus black and white.

It works in virtually all situations indoors or out. I occasionally swap out one of the colors for a more seasonally appropriate hue but it's still two of each primary with black and white.
 Recently, I tried a different palette: one blue (Prussian) two yellows (Cadmium pale and medium), two reds (Alizarin and Indian red), Burnt umber instead of black and white. This backlit location image doesn't show it well.

The difference in mixes threw me at times but back in the studio the picture stuck out on my rack of plein air studies. The split primary pictures didn't just have similar hues in subjects with similar weather conditions; sunny days had nearly identical hues to overcast days and images from different seasons shared the same mixes as well. My value structure was appropriately different and the proportion of hues was different but the hues themselves were the same. That's a given problem with pastels but maybe oils and watercolors could benefit from setting the palette a bit more specific to the subject?

Monday, June 6, 2016

Reinventing the Wheel 2

Since most of this summer's blockbusters are sequels or reboots I thought I'd get in on the fun and update the last post . I'm looking forward to Ben Hur...this is the story's 4th remake. I saw the the 1959 classic on a two story high drive in screen...that's why they called them epics.

Anyway... This time I painted in the center of our "color pick" to suggest all the lower chroma hues and where they would appear.

It's not geeky science-y perfect but it's not way off either. It's mixed on the fly from the palette, just as you would in a painting. That was the point of the redo: create a color wheel that corresponds to the actual act of painting   In the second image I've superimposed two strips of mixed color to show they plot pretty true.

The vertical one is ultramarine + cadmium yellow pale. The diagonal one is ultramarine + cadmium red

Monday, May 23, 2016

Reinventing the Wheel

Jessica Kirby gets credit for the title of this post because it's about color wheels.  Most don't help you with mixing I'm proposing a new one that may. I'm going to pitch it out this post and perhaps demonstrate its mixing accuracy in a future post. Here it is with my basic watercolor palette (plus quinacridone magenta, viridian and pthalo green plotted for reference):

Not quite a "wheel" but you'll see why.
 There are hundreds of color wheel schemes found in art stores or in online diagrams. Few are helpful for mixing actual pigments because they're purely theoretical or apply to light waves or something other than paint. 
 The general idea is that you draw a line between two hues and what occurs between is the mix. 
 Opposite hues on the familiar ROYGBV wheel supposedly average to grey. That pretty much works for red+green but blue+orange and yellow+purple mix to murky browns (auto correct wanted to give you Murphy Brown there).
The newer CIELAB wheel keeps the red/green combo but opposes yellow with blue. Like so:

 No way that pair will neutralize to grey. I'm given to understand it's an accurate model of how you computer views color...helps the Cyborgs but not me.

SO...I McGyvered the CIELAB wheel to reflect how pigments actually mix. It's more guitar pick than wheel, but the odd shape allows you to see where any two mixed colors plot with greater accuracy.
 Like most color wheels, the outside rim goes through the visible spectrum, indicating HUE. That rim also represents the most saturated version of the color: CHROMA. 
 As you move towards the center, chroma reduces - each hue gets less vivid, more subdued - until the center point is neutral grey.
By moving the grey center off center the blue yellow axis plots through green territory rather than implying they create neutral grey like the CIELAB wheel does.
So now when you draw a line between any two hues,  all the mixes actually plot along that line. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Chicago lessons

Last week I went to the Art Institute of Chicago with my wife and artist Jessica Kirby and boy did I learn a lot about good paintings. To wit: great painters give themselves the advantage...that's why their work looks masterfully effortless...we acolytes sometimes hamstring ourselves. Particularly in choice of subject matter. 
Not everything is paintable...EVERY good painting I saw that day had one thing in common: the subject had paintable information. 
What does that mean? Well, the chosen subject could be translated into brush marks because:
1. It had distinct shapes. OR, it joined with other things of similar value to make a distinct conglomerate shape.
2. It had a focal point that looked specific because it was painted large enough to be done without wearing a jeweler's loupe and using laparoscopic surgical tools. Hence it could be done with ease and energy.
3. The "background" was generalized...but because the artist did 1and 2 above, you often thought it was detailed even though it might just be a schmear of lovely color..
Check these examples:
Look at these abstract light shapes on a dark ground. There were other paintings in the same room - good ones - I just can't remember them.
Or this other Sargent..which I think is one of the most perfect pictures in the history of painting...the woman, her husband, the fountain and her painting equipment amalgamate into one big light shape on a dark to medium value field (lest you think this is mere travelogue read Jessica Kirby's blog at right or read up on Sargent's travels. This is a painting about the act of painting and painters personalities. It's as artsy as artsy gets).

At the size it appears on this blog it looks nearly photographic. Yet every  stroke in this gem is simple...anyone could make them...they're just the right color in the right place.

Homer does likewise with a big dark shape in a medium field - with select light accents. 50 years later Robert Motherwell and others did the same thing...they just kept their marks from looking like anything familiar. With Sargent and Homer I can have the cake and eat it too, so to speak.

So what are these geniuses doing that eludes me? Here's an example of the kind of thing I used to attempt (it was shot from the window on the train ride home). It was a beautiful evening, but let me list the problems with this as a paintable image.

1. The "particular" stuff - or focal point - is at the back. The foreground is all non specific stuff.
2. The focal point is small in area and the surrounding area is large. If I "zoom in" it's ambiguous spatially...especially if I render the atmospheric perspective which is part of it's charm.
3. The value range is close. Only the sky contrasts and it sits over everything. The shapes don't cut into each other. There was a gloriously boring triptych of the French landscape (also seen from a train) by Ellsworth Kelly in the modern wing.

The moral of the story? Pick paintable stuff...good shapes, discernible contrasts and do it big enough that it's easy to render. Painting shouldn't feel like defusing a bomb.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Upcoming show and classes

LAST MINUTE CHANGE, note new date: I will be having an exhibit of some recent watercolors and oils at Art Domestique Gallery in Washington, IA. The reception is Tuesday April 19 from 6-8pm. The gallery is on the east side of the square, next door to Cafe DoDici. Here's a sample:

On many of the works I tried to get a somewhat unique palette as well as a more patterned, shape conscious design to the work, reminiscent of Japanese woodblocks where appropriate. As a kid, that was the only original artwork we had at home. We had posters of Manet, Degas and Tolouse Lautrec too. All of them were influenced by Japanese woodblocks so maybe that's why I'm fascinated with that look.
I'm teaching a 3 day Plein Air workshop in conjunction with the exhibit, April 22-24. It will be for oil, pastel or watercolor and I plan to demo in the mediums most people are using...maybe all 3?
The foliage should be quite nice by that time.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Sticking with it

Two posts back I pondered how a plein air image might benefit from some changes. On location I pretty much took it as was and used my best guess as to how to do it.
 Since then I did some drawings (this one is China marker and sharpie pen on grey Bogus paper).

Then some watercolor sketches...

and a new studio version...

And here's the original...

I tried to get stronger shapes, juicier color, fewer tangents and hopefully fewer inconsequential details. It's still a bit "oil painty" but better...getting closer to a new look.
 I think doing something over a few times in a few ways pays off, so I'm going to try and spend more time in my sketchbooks. It's liberating to just launch at something without expectations. Here are a few I think could become pictures...

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Honestly, I know better...

It was beautiful weather Friday so I went painting in Bentonsport with Gin Lammert, Jessica Kirby and Deb Baughman. Most of us got enchanted with the limestone walls left over from the foundation of the town's millrace, much of which has been cleverly converted to a large walled rose garden.
Too enchanted in my case - I forgot basic stuff even beginners know. These two watercolors have several problems.

1. Overworked - these were better subjects for oil or pastels for starters. If important stuff is a light passage in a dark or medium field, watercolors are not a good choice.
2. Too many strokes -  there was just lots to see and I didn't pick a focus and stick with it. AND I didn't think about simplification. I just kept finding stuff to put in. The artistic equivalent or hoarding or binge eating potato chips.
3. Unconsidered composition - no focus, no lead in, even the orientation of horizontal or vertical wasn't addressed. A thumbnail would have sorted all that out.
4. Worst of all, I was basically ok with them till I got home and looked at them a while. 
Amusingly, I got some clues after Jessica sent out our traditional group photo. 
She commented that she looked like Alfalfa from the Litte Rascals. 
I disagreed, citing lack of cowlick and freckles (we're still debating the freckles) and suggested Sargent's portrait of Rosina Ferrara was closer to the mark.

That reminded me to look at some of his other works using the same model. Here's Rosina next to a stone wall in Capri not too unlike the environs in Bentonsport. 

Being Sargent, he didn't make Preston mistakes. 
1. He has an obvious focus - Rosina - but it could have been something inanimate too. All the major lines or shapes lead to her, or frame her shape. 
2. The background and foreground are gloriously simple BUT NOT dashed off. From even a short distance they look quite resolved. HE SAW THEM IN RELATION TO HIS FOCAL POINT, not one at a time by themselves. Honestly, I know this stuff...
3. If anyone could pull this off in watercolor he could...but he knew light accents on a deep toned field isn't the medium's forte.
4. Diagonals - walls cut your foreground off from your background. It can be done but it requires fancy dancing.
At home I  did a couple 3x5 sketches in my sketchbook - like I SHOULD have done first. 

At least I figured out a horizontal orientation was better but a diagonal leading to a focus - or even just into deep space - would have been better. If you're going to run something right across your picture plane it needs to be a VERY engaging shape.
Oh well...

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Growing Pains

  Its just natural that creativity and change go together. I'm sure there's something in science that demands it. For a few years now I've been changing slowly, partly from circumstances but mainly from whatever the dynamics of that creativity thing entails. Working plein air more is part of it, though that is actually a return to my "roots". The hard part is sorting out what to paint and why (though I'm not sure one needs to know why...just that you must). But maybe how is an issue too. 
 I'm convinced there's a a part of me that's too prose and not enough poetry. 
 Take these two images from last Saturday (an exceptional day weather-wise and a great time painting with fellow artists Carrol Michalek and Jessica Kirby - check them out at right). I like both images but that nagging feeling they could go farther too....
First the bridge into Farmington Iowa. I just went at it as is, with minor changes. The available shapes offer better opportunities, maybe?

 Next are the wetlands at Mt. Sterling Iowa. I took a few more liberties in hopes of getting the feel of the glaring light. 

Places like this don't offer too much object-wise so you have to be all about the light. I had a clue but maybe didn't follow it far enough?
I don't know. The only thing I'm sure of is that way down inside,  something rumbles and wants to be different. 
 Both could be done in other media...possibly that's an approach. More graphic? Juicer color? This artist thing doesn't get easier with time! Stay tuned in case I do studio versions.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Brush finesse

While this booger surfs my respitory system I've been surfing the net and found a really good YouTube by Liu Yi. Here's a sample of his stuff:

He's a wonderful painter, but the filming angle and lighting of this video lets you see aspects of brush handling and paint manipulation better than most. The video is just an intimate little landscape with rocks and foliage, but you can see the brush orientation and can gauge the consistency of his paint. That's not easily verbalized in demos because a lot of that is tactile. There's no commentary on it but that's a plus - you just watch.

Here's the link And here's what to watch for.

1. The brush casts a shadow on the paper, forming a "V", the point of the letter being where the hairs contact the paper. If the "V" is narrow, the brush angle is shallow, contacting the paper on its side. If it's wide the brush angle is more vertical, using the tip. You'll catch on.
2. Note how light the touch is. He's not painting this like the trim on his house. He's leading and coaxing liquid around most of the time. Beginners - and too often experienced painters - dab and stroke away with dry-ish paint because it SEEMS more controlled. 
3. Yes, you will see him press down on the brush and splay it, but that's to get a specific mark. THE THING TO WATCH FOR is whether it leaves a little puddle of paint or a small bead he can lead along the surface. That means the brush was loaded with runny paint. If you don't see a puddle or bead, he's working with a dryer brush or stiffer, darker paint.
4. Note he uses a 9x12 Arches block with a relatively small oriental style brush - very like the Happy Dot brush many of us use. On other videos he uses just about every brush type there is...and different it's NOT THE GEAR. He knows the condition of his paper and the consistency of paint he's bringing to it.
5. Most of the video is classic light to dark watercolor process. There is one point where he scrapes (or rather squeegees) some light branches into a dark passage. It's not magic - you just have to wait until the water is BELOW the paper's surface and the paint on top is still moist. Then scrape it off. The mark stays because there's no water on the surface to flood paint back into that area.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Some day my paper prince will come...

Last post I touched on the role of sizing in watercolor paper and it's effect on the paper's behavior when wet. I've puzzled it some more and come up with this. I'm Using Arches and Bockingford as comparisons - there are too many papers to comment on all of them and these are popular examples of two basic types. There are no really awful papers in my opinion (though Strathmore Aquarius comes close). Just papers that wouldn't match your profile on  The purpose of this post is to shed a bit of light on why each might perform as it does, in the hopes you can experiment and find a suitable match...
First, there are a lot of variables and I'm basing these comments on the use of UNSOAKED, UNSTRETCHED PAPER. The comment in points 4-7 will be even more important if you soak and stretch.
1. Is the size IN the paper, ON the paper or BOTH?
 That corresponds to, respectively, internal sizing, surface sizing or the two together. Bockingford is an internally sized paper, and this is typical of "student" papers, though for reasons below I find it outperforms them all and most "artist grade" papers too. Arches is both internally and surface sized which is typical of artist grade papers.
2. How much size is used on the paper? Here I have to guess and go by feel. I'm going to say Bockingford feels pretty heavily sized and Arches uses less internal sizing because it gets the additional surface sizing (possibly there's a limit to how much sizing is desirable?..I don't know and the manufacturers are understandably mute on their process). Bottom line, one has more size close to the surface and the other has it all packed into the paper. The behavior is noticeable as it should be.
3. What is the sizing made of? Arches uses an animal gelatin (in either or both sizings...I'd say both) and Bockingford uses something else. Possibly the synthetic gelatin called Aquapel? Bottom line, they paint differently.
4. How easily does it soften when wetted? The Arches size seems to loosen up faster than the Bockingford. Perhaps because your initial paint application is hitting size alone?
5. How long does it stay wet before it hardens again? Arches, once loosened, seems to stay moist longer. Possibly that's because Bockingford is a wood fiber paper and Arches is cotton which should be naturally more absorbent. This and the point above are probably why Arches was the paper of choice for the American School of watercolorists from 1930-1970. Their working method was rather specific.
6. Does surface sizing sink in? Seems so, especially if your brushwork is vigorous.
7. Is some of it removed by the brush during the painting process? Seems like it does. On both papers colors look "furrier" in heavily worked areas. Either that or water and brushwork push it into adjacent areas. This brings up another issue: does your painting style redistribute sizing unequally?

Final observations: The whole trick to watercolor is knowing what the condition of your paper is, so that when you bring a particular consistency of paint to it, you can make an educated guess as to the result. All the above factors affect the condition of the surface and need to be noticed from one brand to the next so you know WHEN to go into the paper with the desired paint consistency. Your frog may be a prince...but they all need to be kissed differently.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Paper chase

The subject of paper came up in class the other day - questions about sizing and such - so I did a bit of research to try and supplement my experience. I learned a couple things and got some surprises too. Had I gone by manufacturer info and Internet reviews I may have rejected my favorites without trying them!
 First, my favorite papers: 
1. Bockingford 140lb. Cold Press (white and occasionally the tinted)
2. Saunders Waterford 140lb. Cold Press and Rough
(Both are manufactured by the same mill)

 Next, papers which work ok once I get the hang of them:
1. Kilimanjaro
2. Arches
3. Fabriano
4. Lana
5. Bee (?) a paper I was given to try.
   Last, papers I don't like:
1. Any 300lb. paper (WAY too thirsty for me)
2. Most hot press surfaces (except in sketchbooks)
3. Papers with an obviously mechanical texture (most "student" papers)

Watercolor papers are sized to reduce absorbency (think painting on toilet paper) . All are internally sized; sizing mixed into the pulp before forming the sheet. Some are externally sized as well; an additional coat applied after the sheet is formed. This extra step accounts for the higher price of artist grade papers. Student grade papers don't get the extra application.
Watercolor paper can be made from wood pulp or cotton. Cotton is naturally acid free. Wood contains acidic lignin but high alpha cellulose pulp can be buffered to a neutral ph. Cotton's longer fibers supposedly make it less buckle-prone than wood fiber papers.
Watery pulp is spread onto felts to form a sheet. As the water drains and evaporates the sheet takes on the texture of the felt (sheet by sheet with handmade papers or in a machine which duplicates the process in volume). Cheaper papers are produced on a machine which doesn't mimic the felting process as well. This results in the pulp fibers assuming a more uniform grain direction. These papers buckle more than felted papers, whose fibers are more randomly distributed, equalizing their expansion and contraction a bit when wet.

So, logic would dictate the best paper is 100% cotton, externally sized and favorably reviewed by a diverse, international cross section of experienced painters on Internet sites such as much for logic...
Ironically, my first choice, Bockingford, meets NONE of those criteria! My second choice, Waterford, meets 2 out of 3.
Arches, which doesn't really thrill me, enjoys a mojo-like reputation. Brits speak highly of English made Saunders but is that national pride? Painters outside the UK seem to be Arches fans overall.
If you learn to be aware of a paper's condition (dry, wet, damp) you will have a fair idea what happens when a given consistency of paint hits it. Experienced painters get what they want on just about any paper because they can gauge its condition.
 How paper reacts to water will differ between wood and cotton, the weight of the paper and the type and amount of size. All added variables - some of which are patented and proprietary.
Your style will dictate a favorite. If you rework your surface a lot or use masking fluid liberally a heavily sized, long fiber paper is indicated. Some artists don't like how Arches behaves until they've brushed water on it or soaked and stretched it. I suspect that softens or removes some of the size and gets it to a state similar to Bockingford, which is only internally sized. If you gave Bockingford the same treatment, it would probably be unsatisfactory.
 Alvaro Castagnet and Joseph Zbukvic have Arches endorsements (interestingly they both used Saunders when they had to buy their own) but they can paint well on anything because they're hyper aware of the paper's condition. Both paint in ordinary sketchbooks made primarily for graphite. I've seen Zbukvic remark on video how Arches doesn't react quite how he likes but he adapts in realtime and the painting comes out.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Getting lost in the woods

Last Saturday I went painting with friends on the Van Buren county Riviera, near Pittsburgh (Iowa, that is). Carroll Michalek turned us on to some exposed limestone banks on Chequest creek. Jessica snapped a photo of us, budding fashionistas all. Amazingly, the coordination of our painting ensembles was totally spontaneous: This season the Art Smart Set is wearing shades of gunmetal with accents in ultramarine and claret.

 At the easel, however, I got lost in all the neutral color and woodsy texture. I was kind of happy color wise with what I did but think it could have been simpler: Suggest more texture (not render it) and paint more pattern. Here's the picture on location.

 Here is a studio version next to it  - with what I hope are simplifications and improvements.

I don't paint woodsy subjects enough.  I've learned to simplify a field of soybeans but I got seduced with all the rocks, leaves and branches here. I heard similar complaints from those assembled.
One of the things to be said for painting with friends is that you instantly see major variations on a subject, especially when others are working in different media. Jessica and Carlene painted in oils this outing, Carroll drew and I reveled in the novelty of using watercolors in January without vodka in the water pot. Had I been painting solo I may not have tried to puzzle through these issues and just moved on to other subjects.  I think it's worth going back to and doing some more.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Studio makeover progress

Well, thing are getting close to done. My stacked storage unit is built. Dismantling the two old ones shocked me when I saw how dirty everything was.

 It's made of 28" hollow core doors with 1x6 legs screwed on to the sides. I removed the old 32" legs and put on 72" legs instead. The drawers are 1x4 with a 1/4" Masonite bottom and attached to slides. The bottom section houses my large Schminke pastel boxes with a tool drawer over one. Small items like watercolor tubes and drawing supplies go in an old card file I got at a library auction. Portable easels go on top. Mat board, fomecor and assorted papers next. Below that are frames and larger pieces of glass (smaller pieces go in the leftover space at bottom right) and canvases and stuff stored in tubes.

A 36" door slides out from between two shelves as a work table for priming panels, cutting mats or stretching canvas. With one room it's necessary to have convertible work stations.

 The laundry wall cabinet that used to be above the old table got casters and is now a taboret thingie for gesso, solvents, paint and related items.

That freed up my drawing table to be used as...wait for it...a drawing table! I actually got that on the curb during spring pickup in Fairfield years ago. I check that house every year now!

 The big easel is in its corner. The ceiling lights will have to be rearranged to fit but as is, it's fine during daylight hours.

 There's lots more room now but the issue has become parting with bits of this and that that clutter up the room. Junk I thought could be used for some project...and has been waiting years for said project to materialize. It's all going to go. Next will be some painting racks on the wall for plein air studies.      Meanwhile, I'm getting ideas from what my painting friends are posting in their blogs so I'll probably work in it for a while before making any other changes.