Saturday, October 30, 2010

Value Plans--Midtones

A problem I've seen with student value plans is that the midtones are not dark enough.  The midtones are important because it is the glue that holds the darks and lights together.  If the midtone isn't dark enough, the jump to the darks will be too startling. 

Making a value plan is crucial.  It will show the weaknesses in composition that color cannot possibly compensate for.  It is also the indicator of aerial perspective.  And most important, it will tell you how to proceed. 

For instance, in the second value sketch above, if you want the light tree on the left to be yellow, you must plan to paint it before you place the mountain silhouette down.  In watercolor, you can't place a yellow on top of a midtone and have it read as a light.  On the other hand, you can paint right through the darks on the barn because you know it will be darker than the mountain or the trees behind it.

And remember, the whites in a value sketch don't have to be pure white in the final painting.  They can be slightly tinted with an appropriate color and then painted over.

If your paintings don't look organized, try a value sketch or two.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Watercolor Reflections

                              Brown's Wharf
Why do some artists choose pastel and others, oil? What leads one to lithography and others to egg tempera?  And why watercolor?

My own journey in paint began, like so many other painters did, with oil.  The "fixability" factor played a role, plus the rich history of oil painting.  But I never quite got the hang of mixing colors in oil.  They seemed to get chalky and very dry looking.

At the suggestion of the art teacher at the school where I taught English, I made the transition to watercolor.
I immediately fell in love with the fluid feel of the strokes and the transparency of the colors.  There were headaches, too:  the muddy colors resulting from overmixing, the struggle to save the precious white paper, not enough water, too much water, and leaving too many  "popcorn" whites.

But I couldn't put the brush down.  (Well, one time I did when I dented the ferrel of a $50 brush by slamming it down on the drafting table!)  It took quite a few brush miles before I started to know what would happen before I touched the paper.  But the journey has been worth it.

One of the reasons I enjoy teaching watercolor is that I know the typical mistakes and can make suggestions as to how to avoid them.  The benefit of having made mistakes is helping others to avoid them. (Sound familiar, parents?)  So if you're just beginning in this fascinating, sometimes frustrating medium, seek out a good teacher.    And pay attention!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

By Design

                           The Park Cafe

Here's the latest painting in the Watering Hole Series.  This one is a cafe in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania where I stopped for lunch on the way home from Maine this year.  The cafe owner and I had lots in common.  In college, both of us had started out in the art department, but changed majors to English.  She is also a painter and an avid reader. 

The figures fall on the upper third line.  The lights on the empty tables and the obliques lead you to the customers by the window.  There is a dominance of rectangles to give the painting a repeating shape.  Warm hues work well in interiors and give a unity to the composition. 

Use the design elements and principles to direct the eye.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Favorite Motifs

                                             The Town Square

In this painting, I've incorporated all sorts of favorite subjects:  the town square, statuary, figures, silhouettes, and gathering places.  There are "quiet" areas with not much going on to contrast the busier areas with lots of movement. 

Accumulating a body of work enables you to choose tried and true subjects that you have an affinity for. 

P.S.  I've just recently allowed myself to use Chinese white as an accent.  I would never use it to substitute for the untouched beauty of the white paper in larger areas, but the water in the fountain would have seemed a bit artificial if I had left it a pure white. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Illinois Workshop

                            The Horse Barn at Dubois Center

This past weekend I taught a workshop at the Dubois Center in southern Illinois.  I had some enthusiastic students who welcomed and responded to me, and made me remember why I love teaching so much.

Students get frustrated and discouraged for all sorts of reasons, but two of them are totally avoidable!  First, get the best brushes you can afford.  Working with inferior equipment will only complicate an already difficult
process.  A good brush should come to a chisel or point, with hairs long enough to hold a lot of water, and be springy enough to bounce back to their original shape.  Get at least two very wide brushes.  You can't cover a half sheet with a wash using a brush that is only 1/4 inch wide!

Second, before each painting session, squeeze out a generous amount of paint.  Don't worry about cost or drying out.  Re-wetting will take care of that.  You'll never be able to get a rich, creamy dark with a miser's worth of paint!  You'll end up with more water on the paper and not enough paint.  You have to be able to dig into the paint!

Thanks to my kids for a wonderful, laugh filled weekend!  Hope to see you again very soon!

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Autumn is a popular subject to paint.  This is a scene on Barter's Island, Maine. 
This weekend I'll be in southern Illinois teaching a three day weekend workshop.  I'll post from there if I can get a wifi signal.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Blues

Most students understand pretty quickly the difference between warm colors and cool colors.  Warm colors look like fire and the sun, and cool colors remind us of ice and snow shadows.  Warm = yellow, orange, earth tones and reds.  Cool = blue and green.

So when students hear that in the primaries there can be cool yellows and warm blues, they freak out!
For example, take the color blue.  Ultramarine blue is considered to be a "warm" blue because it leans toward the red side a bit.  Thalo blue, cerulean blue and manganese blues are all "cool" blues.  The purest blue is considered to be cobalt.

Why is it important to know these differences?  Look at the painting I did of a spring house in New Hampshire.  You'll see that in the distant mountains I used an ultramarine blue because the mountains are closer than the sky.  By contrast, I used a cerulean blue in the sky.  Remember the old maxim that warm colors advance and cool colors recede. If I had used the same blue in both places, there would have been no contrast, and therefore no differentiation in spatial distance.  I could have also used a thalo green in the sky to make the difference even more pronounced.

So don't always reach for the same blue out of habit.  Know why you are choosing one blue over another.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Hudson River School

A number of American painters have documented the Hudson River Valley, among them Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, William Chase and John Frederick Kensett.  One of the most popular locations was Kaaterskill Falls, just outside the town of Hunter in the Catskill Mountains.  Yesterday I drove through the Catskills to see some of the views that these men painted.  Kaaterskill Falls flows right down to the road and provides a close up view of this popular landscape subject. Unfortunately it was raining, so I was not able to paint it plein air.  So I took a photo. Here it is.  Maybe when I get settled in at home in St. Louis, I'll try to paint it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

My Palette

The word palette can mean several things: 1.) the physical holder of paint  2.) the choice of colors and
3.) The placement of those paints on the surface..

My choice for a physical palette is the John Pike model.  The surface is large enough to mix warm colors on one side and cool on the other. 

My choice of colors is pretty basic:  a warm and cool version of each primary, some earth tones, and a couple of exotic hues. 

The placement of my paints is based on warm and cool colors.  The warm colors and earth tones are on the left side of the palette.  I put them in a prism order, i.e. yellow, orange, red, violet, blue, green.

It's particularly useful to have the warms on one side and the cools on the other because I like to gray my hues.  As I hammer home to my students, "Put down a warm; reach for a cool. Put down a cool;  reach for a warm."  Instead of giving a list of specific colors to mix, I think the mantra of warm versus cool works better.  When the instructor is not present, the student can sometimes get confused about color choice.  Choosing a warm and knowing its complement is much more helpful than dictating two magic combinations.

Color choice is a personal matter, but knowing how and when to choose certain colors is essential.  And having them in a logical sequence is important in a medium that requires some speed.  (Click on the photo to enlarge it.)