Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Workshop Experience

This week I've travelled to Rockland, Maine to take part in a workshop with Uraguayan artist Alvaro Castagnet.  It has been an exhausting week, physically, intellectually and emotionally.  Among other things, it has re-sensitized me to the student's dilemma in a workshop situation. 

Alvaro is a painter who teaches, not a teacher who paints.  Oftentimes that left the class baffled by some of his statements that didn't exactly appeal to the logical, analytical, information-gathering role of the student.
Talk of maxim impact, personal vision, intuition, mood and developing a philosophy of painting is not easily described or absorbed.  But like pornography, you know impactful art when you see it.  Whether it was his bold use of reds, his impossibly dark values, or the creation of depth within his paintings, I found myself impressed and inspired.  His outrageous personality took some getting used to, but it was all part of the energy he brought to his painting activity.

So I return home to Boothbay with an impression rather than pages of notes:  his brush flying every which way, his shouting as he attacked the paper, the effort to connect the darks and soften the edges.  All of these images have been burned into my brain, and I'm sure will seep into my consciousness in the days of painting to come.

Here is his last demo.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


Too little, too big; too hot, too cold; too hard, too soft.....And then there's just right.

How do we know when to stop painting and call it done?  It starts with the concept.  If you are trying to duplicate a scene splinter for splinter, petal for petal, you will probably wind up with too many details and not enough clear shapes. Some painters go for the details way too early, and they end up with too much texture everywhere in the painting.  Other painters haul out the darks too early and have no midtones to tie shapes together.

One way to avoid these two pitfalls is to force yourself to stay with the biggest brush you have for as long as possible.  The minute you reach for a smaller brush, stop and ask yourself if it is indeed time to start with the details and textures and small shapes.

You can also question whether you are naming objects to be painted instead of shapes. "Now I'm going to paint the trim on the windows" can be replaced with "Have I defined all the major shapes and values in this painting?" Only then should you think about details.  If you begin with the details because you are impatient to get to the important stuff, you will nearly always end up with a scattering of textures that do little for the rights of the overall effect you want to achieve. 
As a fellow watercolorist says to his workshoppers, "First bake the cake; then you can decorate it."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Breaking the Rules

A couple of sailboats, a couple of people, a couple of umbrellas, a couple of rowboats, and a couple of staffs. 
I've always heard that you should use objects in groups of odd numbers.  I deliberately decided to defy that "rule" in this painting.  Every once in a while an artist should think about the purpose of a rule, and then ask when it is appropriate to break it.  This just seemed like a good time.

Ignorance, however, is not a justification for rule-breaking.  The conventions, elements and principles serve a time-tested purpose and should be in the arsenal for creating and judging fine art.  But the groundbreakers in the arts have always been the ones who questioned the validity of rules that are seemingly written on stone tablets. 
So know and use the elements and principles, but if working outside the rules makes for more interesting art, then, by all means, become a rebel.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Zoom In

When looking at a landscape possibility,  your eyes are capable of taking in a 180+ degree panorama, but including that much subject matter in one painting is not only daunting, it is probably a design and focal point killer.  If you try to include everything in your painting, the painting idea will almost certainly be lost in a forest of details.

The best solution is to zoom in on one area to focus your viewpoint and the viewer's attention.

This painting of a tug illustrates a decision to eliminate much of the vessel in order to create a "T" design.  By omitting the background and rest of the tug, the wheel house is clearly the focal point and the subject of the painting. 
Zoom, Zoom!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


About five years ago, I was painting over at the Sea Pier, trying to do a most accurate rendering of the dock scene.  It was a total flop.  In frustration and some anger, I flipped the paper over and just started throwing paint around.  Then I started to "find" buildings and signs in the color field.  With nothing to lose, I had gained the freedom to just enjoy the paint and the possibilities. 

The resulting image had no resemblance to the real dock.  But I liked the colors and the freedom I felt while painting.  It had taken me to a new level of expression.  That began a series of paintings in which I rediscovered color and imaginative approaches, and replaced realistic landscape portraits with design and color ideas.  Hard edges also started to disappear.  Painting was fun again.

So if you're frustrated or even have a temper tantrum as I did on that day, use it to your advantage.  Let the brush fly.  You can always impose discipline and design on your next paintings.  But once your brush experiences true freedom, it will want to be let loose again and again.  And I say, Let her rip!

P.S.  I have enlarged the print for easier reading.  Let me know if you like the change or not.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Variations On A Theme

Revisiting a favorite painting spot can result in repetitious, even boring paintings.  The trick is to figure out what first drew you to the site, but then find a way to vary your depiction of it. 
For me, this dock on the eastside of Boothbay Harbor was interesting because of the shapes and the roofline.  The first few times I painted it in a rather realistic manner.  After that, I had to rely on variations to create interest for me and potential viewers. 

Things to try:

Vary the dominant color.
Substitute an abstract underpainting for a realistic background. 
Add elements that aren't really there.  Figures, signs, doors, barrels, etc.
Emphasize the sky and make the buildings a silhouette.
Vary the size of the darks or the size of the lights.
Try a checkerboard effect. (Alternation)
Enlarge one object beyond what it is in reality.
Zoom in on one area.  (Using a viewfinder helps in this.)
Change the actual color of every object or area into its complementary color.
Paint the entire scene in black, gray and white.
Here are two variations on one of my favorite spots.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Midtones

Most watercolorists paint from light to dark.  Usually I see that my students are able to paint the first wash in a very clean and fresh passage.  It's when they get to the midtones that problems start occuring.
Some helpful things to consider:
Do a value pattern with three or four clear values.  Know where the midtones are going to be. 

When painting the lights, most of the time you can paint through areas that will eventually be in shadow. Some students think they must stop the light wash when they get to the shadow area. This results in piecemeal work.  Paint the entire object and then paint the midtone on top of the first wash.

  When laying down the midtones, test a small area to see if it is dark enough.  The biggest problem with midtones is that they aren't dark enough.  Also remember that when it dries, the midtone will often be lighter than when it was wet.  Err on the side of painting it darker than you think it should be.

  Paint the midtone lightly.  Don't smoosh the brush into the paper to make it darker.  That will disturb the first wash. Use more water and more paint so that the brush glides. 

Resist the temptation to put in any dark values until the big passages of midtones are complete.

Remember that midtones are crucial in holding the painting together.  Make sure they can be identified as distinctly darker than the lights. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Not-So-Sunny Day

Not all days are sunny, so why should all landscapes  make it look like they are?  Is it because in the midst of a long stretch of rain-soaked days, we like to look up on the wall and see a bright sunny day? On the darkest, coldest, snowy day, do we want to be reminded of how long it is until spring arrives?

I have a good friend whose paintings of snow scenes are filled with light and color.  But even she says that snow scenes are a hard sell. Still, she is compelled to find beauty in the snow covered landscapes of our cove.

Finding the beauty you see in weather that is not the perfect sunny day is a challenge.   Maybe we need to change our attitudes and find loveliness in the perfect rainy day, or the perfect snowy day.  And, come to think of it, that is just the job for an artist.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Happy Flags

Holidays can be causes for subject matter.  Here is a painting that celebrates the Fourth of July.

My reason for doing the painting, however, was more of an experiment with the underpainting. 
In order to achieve the bright, happy colors of the occasion, I decided to go around the color wheel to create a kind of rainbow effect.  Fewer grays resulted in an upbeat, lively atmosphere that caught the spirit of the day.
So try going around the color wheel to keep your colors purer.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Green, Green, It's Green They Say

Summer is the season of green, so learning how to keep foliage and grass from becoming monotonous and muddied is a worthwhile study.
First, think about varying the values of the foliage masses.
Second, try to create warm greens, cool greens, and even non-greens.
Next, mix the greens on the paper instead of mixing up an homogenous green on the palette and then using it everywhere. Use a tube green, modified with one yellow, then another yellow, then burnt sienna, then a blue, then a red.
Finally, think in terms of shapes, not textures. Be aware of the shape and create
textures at the edge of the shape, not in the interior. Some indication
of textures in the foreground will create interest and variation.
This is the local swimming hole at Lobster Cove.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Painting With Friends

I belong to a plein air group here in Boothbay Harbor, an informal group of friends who get together on Wednesdays to paint at various locations around the peninsula. The weather has prevented me from joining the group until this week. I was determined to break out of the gray pattern I'd fallen into for the first few weeks I've been here.

A reunion with friends on a bright sunny day was just what the painting doctor ordered. Laughter helped to lighten my mood and loosen up my palette. What I'd been missing painting only in isolation was the banter and inspiration of other talented artists. Although I didn't produce a masterpiece, I did break out of my grays. Here's the result and a couple of my painting buddies.