Saturday, April 2, 2016

PAINTING ON LOCATION



Painting “en plein air” or “on location” or my personal favorite “paintabout” is a sure-fired way to recharge your artistic spirit. Is it easy? Oh, no. Is it worth it? Oh, yes! The more you do it, the easier it is to get to cruising speed in your work. If it’s been awhile, the first few attempts are usually, well, uninspired. That is why I urge my students to make a habit of painting on location at least once a week and also to grant themselves several days away once or twice a year to plunge into painting whether it be a workshop or a getaway with a painter friend. Having the luxury to think only about the process of painting is a sure fired way to advance in your work and you bring home ideas for additional paintings.

However, sometimes painting on location can be “interesting,” to say the least.


Painting trips can encompass all the range of emotions imaginable - elation, sadness, fear, delight, amusement and so on. This was the case on a trip that began in Italy and finished up in France. The Drome is an area of southern France that was the home of a couple who ran an art and cooking school. The timing of my visit was memorable, sadly so. I had been in Verona, Italy and during our stay, the twin towers in New York City were bombed. It was difficult to contact family at home and I was disappointed in myself that my memory of important things was definitely interrupted by emotion. Fortunately I went to an internet cafe and the owner was a young man who trained at Art Center in Pasadena. I was able to check in with family and a few days later proceeded to the second part of my trip to France. The day I was painting in Comps, we chose an ancient chapel located in the countryside with no buildings nearby. The wind was blowing and the temperature dropping as I began a painting. I had chosen a spot next to a row of trees to shield me from the wind and there was pasture nearby. Pretty soon a couple of horses strolled over and seemed interested in my activity. After I had drawn and put in the first wash, I looked over my shoulder and my former admirers were sound asleep. There are critics everywhere! 

Going to places that are new brings an excitement that is translated into your work. And because you pause and paint, you are regarded as more than just a tourist. It’s important to find a way to work that makes you comfortable and still makes you open to new experiences. If you don’t want people to peer over your shoulder, then back up to a building or bushes. Get out of the line of sight by sitting on a stool and you’ll be surprised how many people just walk right by. You can also wear earplugs, as if you are listening to music and most will not bother you. As you gain experience, these pauses won’t bother you but it’s important to protect yourself as you embark on this very public way of working. Sketching in a journal which can be closed if people come too close works well too. Just remember that the reason for the interest is that they are absolutely fascinated by what you do and impressed with the results.

Working on location, or en plein air, is a wonderful way to get out into our wonderful world and record your unique perspective. Later as you review your paintings and/or sketches, you’ll be
astonished how the sounds, conversations and fragrances of the time you did the painting come
flooding back as you view the images. Magic! Don’t miss it!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

God Bless the Gremlins in the Flat File!

Since I've been painting a long time and know lots of painters I've decided I'm entitled to declare certain artistic truths. This post is about one of those truths that is almost magical in it's concept.

If you are unhappy with a painting or a sketchbook page put it away. Close the book. Just plain get it out of your sight...for awhile. After several days (or longer) take another look and by golly (!) you will see your creation anew. Those wee beings that inhabit the spaces in artist's storage areas have worked their magic and shazam, it's not nearly as hopeless a piece of work as you thought!

The sketch done in San Diego's famous Balboa Park is my most recent example. I was anxious to draw that lovely, complex tower as well as the palm trees which framed the towers so nicely. I was using a new fountain pen which held water soluble ink. The watercolor was added after the drawing. 

Sketch of Balboa Park - Ink & Watercolor
I left the park discontented with my sketch. The ink was much more fluid than I had anticipated and I lost most of the light patches in the top portion. Basically I was a bit grumpy with the whole thing. I closed the sketchbook and had a lovely dinner with my sketching buddy Brenda Swenson at my nephew's restaurant very near the park. I didn't open up that sketchbook for at least a week.

Balboa Park - San Diego
By the time I re-visited the sketch I found my attitude about it had improved greatly. I was able to look at the sketch itself and NOT what my mind had envisioned at the start of the drawing. The simple base of the tower with it's sunlit side was a nice contrast to the complexity of the tower top. I added more dark greens, scattered some of the orange color found on the tallest palm tree in areas around the page, added the border on the upper right corner and included the story. Thankfully I had left that blank so it was perfect for the text. And that important white spot on the tower base? If I had left lots more light on the top portion, that space would not be so lovely. 

I can't begin to recall all the times this has happened and I hear others talk about it too. We need distance to be able to judge what we have, not what we don't have. Until we get to that stage, it does no good to address design problems. I now expect this to happen and stop before I've mucked up the whole thing. Distance is a good thing is many respects and very much so in painting. As for those dear little gremlins? I'm grateful they inhabit my flat file!
 


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Loosen Up!


Loosening up is a common topic of conversation amongst my students - as in "I want to loosen up!" When I ask them why, they have a hard time articulating an answer but it has something to do with what they think watercolor painting should be. I suspect it has more to do with the ease of brushwork in experienced painters rather than a method of applying paint. So I try to gently talk to them about the goal of painting - we each have to find our own language as a painter and to find that takes LOTS of painting. As in everything in our fast-paced world, beginners want to "get there" asap. Too bad it doesn't work that way. Or rather, isn’t it lovely that it works that way. Painting isn’t a new craft that you learn and do for a week or two and then move on to the next new fad. It’s such a demanding, fulfilling, fascinating journey that it can last an entire lifetime.

There is an exercise that I recommend if new painters are wanting to find a way to work that feels more unstructured. You really can't get too tight when you use the wet-into-wet application of paint.

After drawing the subject on watercolor paper, either immerse the sheet in a tub of water or sponge water on both the front and the back of the paper. With the former, wait several minutes so the paper is thoroughly soaked. Grab the sheet by 2 corners and let the water sluice off the page. Then turn it diagonally so more can drip off. Then "walk" the paper down the board - a board that is non-absorbent. By walking I mean laying the paper down from the bottom to the top making sure that each area is right next to the board. If there is a soft wrinkle, lift the nearest corner and walk it down again Watch for areas where the paper seems to have a bubble beneath the paper and if you see any, lift from the corner and lay it flat again. Any air beneath the watercolor paper will make it more difficult when you begin to paint. If you have used a sponge to wet the paper, do the same method of adhering the paper to the board.

You’ll need to wait for the glisten to leave the surface before you begin to paint. Sometimes I’ve been successful at hurrying up the drying time by blotting the paper surface with a towel but there is a danger of taking too much water off. You have to experiment with this part…what is too dry and what is too wet. Experience will tell you what the surface should look like for the optimum time to add paint. 

Pewter Teapot & Radish

You want to paint on a flat surface at the beginning - no angle on the board. If you forget, you’ll see the paint run to the bottom so that won’t happen more than once. By remembering that in watercolor the water is our “white paint”, you’ll reach for more concentrated pigment for the first washes. Brush on color in the places you want it to be and don’t worry about the blurring of the areas as this is what you want - undefined shapes. If the color is perfect, add more pigment since the color will fade at least 20% when it is dry. Then you wait for it to dry. No dryers since it will move the paint all over the place. Later on when you are more experienced, you might like to experiment with that but for the first experiments, just let the paint do it’s thing.

After the surface is completely dry, you can begin glazing colors over the initial washes. For this step, having your board at an angle is perfectly fine. The example above shows how the study worked after the first wash on wet paper and the same study shows how it might be finished. It could have been done in many other ways, this is just one example.

Try lots of studies - in each one you will learn something new. Keep a notebook next to your materials so you can jot down things you want to remember. It not only will help you remember, the very act of writing something down helps your recall.

So if looser painting is your goal, then assign yourself a solid week of painting wet-into-wet. Repetition each day is important since you carry muscle memory as well as mental memory when you paint often. At the end of the week you’ll have studies that are much “looser.” You’ll also be much more content with your work since the practice and repetition will cause your brushwork to be more confident. Win win!




Friday, August 22, 2014

Mixed Media Explorations

Mixed Media

Ink, Watercolor, Collage

One of the wonderful benefits of teaching is that I look for all sorts of ways to explain/show my students the concepts I'm trying to teach. And because of that I'm always exploring and that informs my own work even if it was not the goal. Several years ago I was asked to teach a 3 day workshop and needed to come up with a good final project. Day one was subject matter exploration, composition and drawing in ink;  day two added watercolor to the ink drawing and for the final day we added stained paper collage. 

Day One
Sharpie & watercolor wash 
 That beginning day we worked with all sorts of subject matter in sketchbooks. Sometimes the watercolor wash was added after the drawing was done and sometimes it was done before. In this instance,  I used a vertical subject matter in a horizontal format with monochromatic color. That rectangle is 7"x10", which is the same proportion as a full sheet watercolor paper. This way if you want it to translate to that size, you have begun in the same shape. 
By using sharpie, you can't be too careful with details. The goal was to try several different formats, color schemes, etc.

 Day Two

Watercolor Underpainting - Ink Brush Drawing
The watercolor underpainting was done prior to the drawing since the ink brush I was using was water-soluble. I wanted to use this brush since the addition of water creates different values, thereby making it a simpler exercise.  Of course it could be done is many different ways and we talked about that, but to get the concept and purpose across, I wanted the initial painting to be done as simply as possible. 

Day Three
Stained Washi - Ink Brush Drawing
On the final day, we spent sometime in the morning staining rice paper or washi with our watercolors. While that dried, the plan for the drawing could be done. I usually do not draw with pencil first since that is my preference but several students did that as a first step. 
The stained papers were torn is the sizes and shapes according to each painter and then affixed to the heavy watercolor paper with acrylic matte medium. After that has completely dried, the ink drawing was added and water used to create tone.  I have purposely left this step unfinished as an example for my students.  Our eyes do such a good job of completing line, that it would be interesting to see just how much you could leave out and still have a good readable image.







Friday, July 25, 2014

Watercolor Musings: Necessity becomes the Prompt and Leads to a New Wa...

Watercolor Musings: Necessity becomes the Prompt and Leads to a New Wa...: A number of years ago, just after New Years Day, I decided I needed a unique image for a window display in the gallery, one specifically for...

Necessity becomes the Prompt and Leads to a New Way to Work

A number of years ago, just after New Years Day, I decided I needed a unique image for a window display in the gallery, one specifically for Valentine's Day. I had been doing some watercolor collage which included drawing, watercolor and stained paper collage after taking an inspirational workshop from Jerry Brommer. We had gathered all sorts of collage materials which would be a support for the image in the top third of the page. I found it a creative use of the ephemera collected on trips and sketching days and had done several paintings using this interesting combination. One is even the subject of a previous blog entitled "Everything But the Kitchen Sink," written in August 2010. I wanted to attack this new project in a different way so I made a list of what I wanted to include: the aforementioned materials, a heart shape used in an abstract way, images of my town of Orange, California and finally little bits of historical notations to add interest.

I chose a square for the format for no other reason than that I like designing in that shape. Then I made what I came to refer to as "postcards" within the page - various shapes of squares and rectangles that would be openings for small paintings of the historic plaza area.

Loving Orange
I drew the contours of the wee watercolors in lightly with a pencil and then added the large heart shape in the background. Then came the collaged bits of watercolor stained rice paper which was affixed with matte medium - I was careful to keep the medium away from the opening for the images. Also added were photos from maps of the area, pictures of oranges and roses which are the city flower. Then came the small paintings which were of various views of the plaza square which is the center of the historic district. Some of the collaged found papers were veiled with transparent rice papers and others masked by the addition of drawings using white gouache. Finally I added little bits of history by writing on a sheet of typewriter correction paper which had been given to me by an artist friend. I used every inch of that sheet and carefully! I recently found a white pen which works since typewriter correction paper has been impossible to find.

When I began I had no idea how this would turn out but knew that it would be a pleasure to find out. This is a good example of working on a "problem" rather than setting out to do a "wonderful painting." Setting a limited goal and working toward that end has always been a better way to work for me. I'm concentrating on the problem at hand rather than the final product. You might ask if I'd set myself a lofty goal by wanting something to put in the window and that would be a fair question. However I knew if it didn't work I could always do it again and or if it really tanked, I just wouldn't put it up. That desire to have something specifically for Valentine's Day turned out to be the prompt that opened up a new way to use mixed media and most especially it was such fun to do!

Friday, June 20, 2014

CONFESSIONS OF A PLEIN AIRE PAINTER

Recently I hosted a plein aire watercolor workshop taught by Frank Eber where at least two of the participants began location painting for the first time. For all the many advantages of painting outdoors there are equal challenges, especially at the beginning. Students are so hard on themselves than I always try to find ways to make them more comfortable. It was time to tell the story of my “crash and burn” plein aire week many years ago.

My children were 2, 3 and 9 that week in early July when I painted with Rex Brandt in Corona del Mar. I had painted on location in college and when I taught but it had been a good while since I had done so. I hired two sisters to baby sit who favorites of my children and I’m not sure they even said goodbye when I left. The week went like this: up, breakfast for the kids, have lunch ready for the sitters to prepare, go to the workshop, come home and fix dinner, fall into bed and begin all over again. During the day, I kept giving myself pep talks but the other painters were SO good. On the last day of the workshop our assignment was different. It was July 3rd and we were to go to the Dory Fleet in Newport Beach, get sketches and color notes and return to the Brandt studio and do the painting. Then all the paintings would be put on the wall for a final critique.


Mendocino done on location years after this story



It was Friday, the day before Independence Day and by the time I got to the area, the parking was virtually nonexistent. I finally found a 20-minute spot and raced to the pier. I got sketches in my hardbound dark green sketchbook and got to my car as fast as I could – put my sketchbook on the roof of the dark green car and loaded the rest of my gear in the back.

When I got back to the studio I was missing my sketchbook. I remembered where I last had put it so I got back in my car, returned to the pier area and scoured the area as best I could. No sketchbook.

I think it would be fair to say I slunk back to the studio. I was exhausted from my home schedule as well as the week. My fatigue was as much from all the new experiences as the natural tiredness that comes from being outdoors all day. So, I had no sketchbook from which to work and therefore I would have no painting to put up.

There was only one thing to do. I holed up in one of the bathrooms and cried. And cried and cried. There was a knocking at the door so I wiped my face and opened the door slightly. It was one of the painters who wanted to know what was wrong. So I spilled it all out and she was so kind and encouraging. First of all, no one would know if I didn’t put anything up. Secondly she said I needed to join Peg Sheppard’s weekly workshop. She promised it would be wonderful.

You know, she was right. No one knew. I sat through the critique and learned a lot. And I joined that group of fabulous painters every Thursday for a number of years. When we didn’t have painting classes it changed to critique days and at least once a year we would all contribute to the lunch banquet that was spectacular. Had I not had such a horrible day, I would never had met this inspiring teacher and a group of talented, interesting, compatible, wonderful painters. Sometimes very awful, bad days have a silver lining!