Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Monday, December 30, 2013

Rolling Dreams

Rolling Dreams, 24 x 24 inches, oil on linen

I'm not sure if I posted this one earlier. May be I did. May be it was just Facebook. Oh, speaking of Facebook, if you're not already my friend on Facebook, please send me a friend request. I'd love to be connected to you readers who actually take the time to read my ramblings - and I do post more on FB than I do here, if only to be timely with what's going on in my art world. I'm also extending this invitation now, because I'm going to max out on friends (FB only allows a limited number) soon, and I'd rather be friends with you guys than random people who may or may not actually be interested in my artwork. 

Here are the links to my two Facebook pages:


This painting was done almost a year ago, I think. It's a larger version of a motif I previously painted. I've done many roller coaster paintings in the last several years, and most of them share the same moody evening light as this one.

I love the pattern of light and shadow that the complex mesh of supports make on itself. I took cues from a photo reference but it was way too complex and detailed for me to be literal. So the shadows are more or less made up. I didn't need it to be accurate, just convincing enough to suggest sunlight. 

The trickiest part of it was the gentle transition of light to dark as we travel downwards. It needed a gradation, and at the same time suggest cast shadows. Not easy to do if you're painting post by post, stick by stick. I ended up relying heavily on glazing; I would paint the light and shadow pattern more or less without much subtlety, let dry, and come back with transparent glazes over a large area to make the  gradation happen.

Then I would go back in and try to refine it, painting both positive and negative shapes. Then I would repeat the glazing. After a few times, it got too dark overall, so I'd have to come back with lighter opaque colors to redefine those areas which needed redefining.

It was a process of repeating going too far and pulling back. losing shapes and finding them. It seems like a very inefficient way to paint, but the truth is all this process stuff contributes to a very rich, mysterious and textural surface that you can't get any other way. You're leaving the footsteps of a journey for the viewer to experience, for the them to be aware that this is not about the end product, but of how I got there. 

And I also like to see signs of struggle in a painting. It tells a story independent of the narrative of the motif, and to an artist, that is sometimes far more interesting to see than the finished product. I want my painting to give up its secrets for those who're willing to investigate.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Another Head Study

This is today's head study. Still haven't gone to the studio. Still painting in my garage.  I'm still in vacation mode, I guess. Aside from this painting which took about 45 minutes, I haven't done anything productive. Being lazy is kind of a scary thing.

Anyway, I worked on Arches oil paper again. I used a portrait by Nicolai Fechin as a reference. My aim is not to copy, but use it as a jumping off point. I'm not interested in studying Fechin's colors–especially not those in reproductions in books since they tend to be off anyway – but I am interested in studying structure and his values which describe the structure.  Brush strokes are not his either. I have some ideas about how I want my brush strokes to look, and while Fechin's is masterful and beautiful, I'm not Fechin. Brushstrokes are like one's handwriting and I want to develop my own, you see.

I painted the hair as a dark wash. I was going to come back into it with thick paint, but it didn't need more so I left it.

When painting heads like this, I prefer to keep my shadows fairly dark. This allows me to have a very big value range in the light side and I can take full advantage of that to model big forms. The head is more or less an egg shaped mass, so if it's lit by a single directional light source, you'd expect to see a value change not only from one side of the face to the other, but from top to the bottom as well. The forehead plane faces up, whereas the bottom half the face faces slightly down. There are small forms within the big form that catch more light, like the lower lip and the chin, but overall, we need to get a sense of the "big sculpt". Without the overall form defined, it'll just look like a lumpy sack of walnuts.

The value changes within the big plane changes can be very subtle, so if you don't have an big overall range of values, it's very difficult to maneuver between the subtle shifts. Having a big overall value range gives me a lot more wiggle room to define the subtle value changes.

If the light side occupy, say, value range from 1 to 7 on a scale of 10, the shadows will occupy 8 to 10. Which means fairly dark shadows. At this value range, colors aren't as intense. If you force higher chroma colors in the dark shadows, you'll see that it quickly starts move away from naturalistic depiction. Not that you can't do it, but you're implying a very specific light condition where there is a secondary colored light source.

…which is not the case with my sketch. My point is that by giving the light side a big value range, most of the higher chroma colors will be seen in the light, not in the shadows. After all, the colors are at their highest chroma in the mid range, and I've assigned the mid-range values as part of the lit side of the head.

Very basic and logical, but you'd be surprised how often students forget to mind the value ranges of light and shadow, and to restrain color where necessary.

If you're interested in learning more about drawing and painting the human head, I'll be teaching a three-day workshop in February.  The workshop is almost filled up but I have a few spots open still.

Please check out my workshop page to find out more.

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Coupla Heads

I hope you're having a good Holiday season! I haven't been in the studio in several days what with all the festivities and my kids being home and all. When I can't get to the studio, it usually fills me with guilt and I get cranky. But since not much is coming out of my brush anyway lately, I'm not sweating it. 

Still, I like to don't want to be doing nothing, so the last few days I've been doing little head studies at home, in my garage. Nothing serious or ambitious, just little sketchy studies- more like exercises. Like daily workouts. Not that I work out daily, but you know what I mean.

I'm using drawings I've done in the past in my sketchbook for these studies. I just plop up my sketchbook on a music stand next to my pochade box, and start painting. I believe the drawings are originally studies I did from Sorolla. 

Since the drawings are done in pencil, I'm making up color as I go. Not very carefully though. I'm more interested in value and brushwork than subtle colors in these studies. 

My pochade box is an Open Box M (10 x 12) and I open it up all the way so that both the panel and the palette are near vertical. Working this way allows light shining on both surfaces to be consistent.

Also, as I like to paint with my panels at eye level, the palette has to be necessarily very high. If I painted with my palette more or less horizontal at that height, it's very awkward and not very ergonomic. Opening up all the way makes it a lot easier on my shoulder as I wield my brush.

The colors I use are the same as in the studio. From bottom left,
  • Ultramarine Blue - my reddish blue.
  • Cerulean Blue - my greenish blue. I sometimes use Prussian, or Phthalo here.
  • Ivory Black - my low-chroma blue. I sometimes use Paynes Grey here.
  • Titanium White.
  • Cad Lemon - my cool yellow.
  • Cad Yellow Deep - my warm yellow. I sometimes mix Cad Lem and Transparent Oxide Red instead of Cad Yellow Deep out of the tube.
  • Yellow Ochre - my low chroma yellow.
  • Cad Red - My warm red. I often use Permanent Red (Rembrandt) instead. Cheaper and less toxic.
  • Alizarin Crimson - my cool red. Lately I've been experimenting with other cool reds like Venetian and Terra Rosa. I like Schminke's Pompeii Red too.
  • Transparent Oxide Red - my low chroma red. 
  • Cadmium Green. I don't usually have a green out of tube. I prefer to mix my secondaries. Sometimes I'll have a bonus color squeezed out on the right side, just for a change of pace. I usually have my "experimental" color here. 
For me, a green out of tube is more useful in figure painting than in landscape painting. I like mixing all the greens in a landscape painting, and with this palette, you can pretty much mix any green. I don't like to use tube greens because typically they need to be adjusted anyway. It certainly doesn't speed things up, so there's no merit to having them. 

When painting the figure, I find tube greens handy for mixing cooler skin tones. Mixing greens into warm skin tones creates a rich complementary grey without killing the color. Often much better than reaching for black or earth tones to grey down a color. If you're doing a "brown" painting, like I am here, it's less of an issue but it's still nice to see some complementary colors in the skin. It keeps the painting from becoming too monotonous.

The top painting was done on Arches Oil paper, and I spent about 45 minutes on each head. The bottom one is done on mylar. Both are excellent surfaces to paint on, though they behave differently from one another, and differently from canvas.

I don't like the beginning stages of either of these surfaces, as the paper is too absorbent (just like watercolor paper) and mylar is too slick. But once you get past the initial stage and you're well into the opaque application stage, both are really easy to work with. Which is better? I can't say. I think that's up to the individual artist's preference. They do feel and look differently - you'll just have to try them both out for yourself. But if you do, don't make snap judgements. Do many sketches - at least use up the whole pad before deciding whether you like it or not. 

After all when materials change, you have to change the way you approach it, or you'll be fighting it the whole way. Don't expect one surface to behave just the same as another. Give it a chance. By forcing yourself to adapt, you may very well discover something useful whether you end up sticking with the material or not.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Figure Painting WIP

So I have not been very productive these past few weeks. It's mostly because I had a very busy September - October - November, and I'm kinda burnt out. I don't feel my creative juices flowing at all, and I don't even want to do anything. Which is a bad attitude, and it feeds itself. 

If you're an artist, I'm sure you've experienced walls and slumps. It's not that I feel like I can't paint (not uncommon).  It's more like I don't even want to. 

That we are in the thick of the Holiday season doesn't help, either. I have no shortage of excuses not to face the canvas. But I'm a professional, and that means I have to work, whether I want to or not. A lot of non-artists falsely assume that being an artist means we can choose to work whenever we want to, or not work if the muse doesn't inspire us. Try paying the bills by not working! Yep, it's a job like any other, in that respect.

Anyway, enough whining. These phases happen sometimes, and we just deal with them as they come. Long story short, I don't have any new cool pieces to post, so I thought I'd show something I'm doing to get my gears moving again.

It's a small 12 x 9 figure painting. The image above is work in progress, thus far. It's not for a show, nor for a particular gallery. I don't know if it'll even be any good. But that's OK, what I need right now is a kick start and some momentum.

This is just one of the many quick gesture drawings that I have. This one was done this week in my class–I just picked it out because I liked the shapes and angles in it. It is a 5-minute pose, drawn with a sanguine pencil on toned paper. When I use sanguine on toned paper, I typically use a white conté to indicate some highlights, but I ran out of time on this one. 

Using the 5-minute sketch, I did a charcoal drawing. Charcoal is a wonderfully forgiving medium, so it's great for trying out ideas. The basic value structure is what I was looking for here, and I changed my mind a few times during the process. 

As I draw, I think about how the light is falling on the figure, and how I might create mood. I used both vine and compressed charcoal, and the paper is Strathmore smooth surface drawing paper. 

Using the charcoal drawing as my reference, I started painting. I decided to work on a toned canvas because I knew it was going to be a low-key, tonal painting. When I paint in a higher key, I don't tone the canvas usually.

The canvas is my usual; Claessen's No.66. That's my favorite, though often use other surfaces.

The toning of the canvas is done with Ultramarine+Transparent Oxide Red+Gamsol, as is the initial drawing. I pulled off some of the tone from the figure, using a rag.

I began applying opaque colors, starting with the figure. I like to establish the basic relationship of light and shadow colors early. The leg and the left arm are darker because they'll be falling away from the spot light, as indicated in the charcoal drawing.

Then I blocked in the dark background. The sofa is going to be dark blue, and the rest of it is sort of nondescript dark tone. I kept it warmer to differentiate from the sofa.

And this is where I am now.  It's way too tight for my liking, actually. This usually happens when I'm not feeling confident, or just plain out of practice. Rendering tightly involves following rules of realism,  and having rules is safe because you don't have to think outside the box. Yes, you can take risks in many other ways, but when I paint tightly, those other ways are usually not on my mind. It's just insecurity, nothing more. 

So at this point, I'm letting it sit in my studio for several days. After it's dry, I will go back and see if I can't break some rules and infuse some energy by way of abstraction and surface work. Or not. I'm trying to keep things open ended on this one. I'm willing to ruin it, which should open up some possibilities.

Stay tuned!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Overcast Light

Norcross Station, 9 x 12 inches, oil on linen

I originally painted the Norcross Station during a workshop I taught in Atlanta last year. It was a demo, and while it wasn't a bad sketch, something about it bothered me. After I got home I tried to figure out what was wrong with it, and tried a few different solutions; lowering the value on the roof, increasing temperature shifts, emphasizing a color theme, etc. 

Unfortunately I don't have an image of the original painting so I can't show you exactly what I mean, but suffice to say, it took a while for me to find a satisfactory solution, which was to essentially connect the roof shape to that of the sky, so that the roof didn't have a definitive edge all around. It had too much impact and definition before, so it took away from the signal / crossing thingy in the front left. 

I didn't want the roof itself to be the main star of the painting, so it had to be subordinated somehow. Besides making the sky and the roof values very very close, I also made the background trees smaller, so more of the roof edge was touching the sky. I also made the light cooler and overcast. Which brings me to what I actually was going to talk about today.

We have to make sure a few things happen, to make a painting look like it's depicting an overcast light. We don't have the direct sunlight, for one. The entire sky becomes the primary light source, and unlike the strong directional light that the sun provides, we are dealing with a very diffused light. It's not really the function of values that makes a scene look sunny or overcast. That is to say, you don't get "sunny" by painting something lighter, and conversely, you don't necessarily get a sense of overcast by painting something darker. After all, an overcast day can feel very bright. 

So how do you show diffused light? By painting your cast shadows with softer edges. This is the single biggest difference between sunny and not-sunny days. On sunny days, we have sharp(er) edges on the cast shadows, whereas on overcast days, we have soft(er) edges. This is true in any diffused light situation, whether it be overcast, hazy, foggy, dusk… The clearer the day, the sharper the cast shadow edges. In some cases the light is so diffused that we don't see any cast shadows at all. 

The other thing we have to pay attention to is the temperature shift between light and shadow. In direct sun light, we often see a warm light / cool shadow relationship. Sunlight usually (but not always) feels much warmer than the shadow areas, so we mix yellows, oranges and reds in it to achieve that.  We are essentially acknowledging that sunlight has color. The shadow side (on a sunny day, still) feels cooler, comparatively. Often the blue sky will make the shadows very cool and blueish, but even without the help of the blue sky, the shadow side tends to be cooler just because it's not getting the warm colored sunlight. The difference may be subtle, but it's there.

Now on an overcast day, the light feels much cooler compared to sunlight, thanks to all the clouds (condensed water vapor) filtering the sunlight. This doesn't mean you paint the lit areas blue. It just means it's cooler than if it were sunny. The shadow side is often painted warmer, but it's a pretty subtle shift most of the time. You may not even see it as shifting at all. It may just appear to be darker, but not particularly cooler or warmer. 

In my painting above, the shadow is a little teeny bit warmer, due to the warm underpainting peeking through. The opaque colors I mixed for the shadows aren't noticeably warmer than the light. I didn't even try to make them warmer. I just made sure they weren't cooler. 

In strong sunlight, light and shadow separate clearly, and often we amplify this separation so there's no ambiguity. This separation provides a good starting point for a solid value structure. 

In overcast light, we have no such tool, so the strong value structure has to come from local values themselves. light things vs. dark things, as opposed to light and shadow providing the value structure. It makes sense, then, to look for interesting shapes in silhouettes, rather than in light / shadow patterns. 

My point here is that given different light situations, you have to have an appropriate strategy to tackle the problem. If you mindlessly approach sunny days and overcast days (and foggy days and rainy days and dusk and twilight and back lit and face lit and…) the same way, your chances of pulling off a successful painting is not so great. 

On the other hand, if you understand the basic characteristics of what makes a particular light situation look that way, you have an enormous head start!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Little Red

Little Red, 9 x 12 inches, oil on linen

It seems like every year, the interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas becomes shorter and shorter. Or time just passes by faster. What is up with that?  I have barely started thinking about all that I need to  do for Christmas, and it's already around the corner. Sheesh.

This is one of the few paintings of trucks that I did this year. I like painting old cars and trucks - they have so much character. I especially like them with all the wear and tear of the years, dents, rust and all.  Somehow old cars that are kept in mint condition for car shows and such, don't make it onto my canvas. No, that's not true exactly. It's not the fact that they're in mint condition, it's the context in which  the cars are seen. Showrooms and car shows don't interest me. I like seeing them in real life context, is all.

This little red truck is still working. I don't even know how old it is or whether it's a Ford or a Chevy (or something else?) but I've seen it jetting around town, carrying bales of hay or junk. Every time I see it, I think of the Energizer Bunny.

Here's a painting tip. When you are painting something that is essentially gray, say, like concrete, or telephone poles or a gray building. Sidewalk, asphalt, gray cars. Anything that a non-artist would identify simply as gray… you have a lot of room to maneuver as to what kind of gray it's going to be. You don't need to match the exact shade of gray that you see on that sidewalk. You can make the decision based on the other colors that you have going in the picture. 

The ground plane in my painting was a sort of nondescript cool gray, but I chose to make it pinkish to support the red truck. I was looking for unity through color harmony, rather than a precise depiction of visual reality. 

I think you can see that the color works well. Next time you have something gray in your painting, try it. Don't copy the gray, but think of it as an opportunity to introduce a nice muted color that enhances the color scheme  in your painting. 

But remember, "you don't have to copy the gray that you see" does not mean you give your self permission to be sloppy. The decision should be made thoughtfully. And also, altering the hue and saturation of a particular gray doesn't mean you can ignore its value.  You've got to keep that under control, always.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

American River Sketches - Evening Hour

Evening Hour, 12 x 9 inches, oil on panel

This sketch doesn't have the river in it, but I'm including it in the American River Sketches series because I was standing with my back to the river. Close enough. It's part of the environment and experience, right?

I started this in the morning, painting with my students one day, but I didn't get very far then, since I had a job to do (going around helping everyone else's efforts). It had blue skies and a much cooler light. I didn't particularly like it–it was just a depiction of a scene, without any emotion or an idea behind it. 

Does that matter? I say yes, absolutely. You have to be clear about what you want to say about a scene whether it's an emotional response, or a more analytical approach to design, color, etc. Or it might even be a purely technical investigation. You have to know what you're trying to accomplish with a painting. Otherwise, you're just going through motions and really, that doesn't count toward your canvas mileage.

Sure, if it's just a study, you don't necessarily have to think about every little thing and carefully design a painting accordingly. But then you can't expect it to be more than a study, either. And you still have to be clear about just what it is you're studying. Color? Value structure? A particular way of applying paint? Character of a particular tree? The concept can be very simple, but there needs to be one. A mindless study isn't a study at all.

Anyway, the painting I started in the morning was a demo about the general process, and I remember talking about the relationship between shadow colors and that of the sky, paying attention to characteristics of the eucalyptus, (what makes a eucalyptus look like a eucalyptus?), a little bit about aerial perspective, and varying brushstroke sizes, among other things.

The painting was essentially a vehicle to illustrate what I was talking about, and I never meant to finish it because it was never really designed.

Still, I saw some potential in the shapes and decided to play with it some more. I went back to the location a few days later, in the late afternoon to see how differently it looked under the late afternoon sun. 

I started painting right on top of the unfinished morning sketch, and this is what I ended up with. Gone are the blue skies and cooler greens. The late afternoon sun has a lot more color in its light, as it has to travel through a lot of particulate matter in the atmosphere (dirt and smog kicked up into the air during the course of the day by wind and human activity) and influences everything. In fact, the orange light is so strong that it trumps the local colors (greens of the foliage and the grass). Only in the foreground do we see some indication of the local colors. Why in the foreground and not in the background? Because in the background you have to see through a lot more of the colored atmosphere. In the foreground, not so much. This in a nutshell, is how atmospheric perspective works.  

How faithfully you depict the colors you see, is up to you. But without good understanding of how atmospheric perspective works, you can't manipulate it to help tell your story more effectively. And communicating your story- your concept- is, ultimately, what it's all about.

You don't have to agree with me, but if you're not trying to communicate your intent, you can't really complain when nobody gets it, now can you?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

American River Sketches - Summer Blue

Summer Blue, 12 x 9 inches, oil on linen

We are having an unusually cold weather here in Northern California. It kind of marks the end of the season for plain air painting for a while. I'm not one of those intrepid plain air painters who go out in frigid weather to bang out snow paintings, you see. Although I have done a few in the past, you'll usually find me inside with a warm drink.

I was looking at a bunch of sketches I have done since spring, and found this one. I don't think I posted it here before. Have I? I don't know. Anyway, it's from this summer, at one of our class's outings to the American River.

On this particular day, I was struck by the blue color of the water. I wanted emphasize that, but water itself being somewhat lacking in physical structure I needed something else recognizable to put it in context. These twin birch(?) trunks caught my eye. The lightness of the bark was a nice contrast against the darker, higher chroma blue of the water. And the light green leaves catching sunlight was fresh, too.

Usually I try to limit the number of elements with brighter colors, and if I have more than one saturated color, I try to make sure the visual impact of each is varied. Big blue area, small green area, etc. 

In the painting above, the two high chroma colors, the blue of the water and the green of the sunlit leaves, are somewhat analogous, (A little farther apart than right next to each other, since the blue leans toward blue violet and the green toward yellow green)  which makes them work together easily. I can afford to push the chroma of these colors without getting out of control because the hues are already harmonious. 

Often harmony and unity is lost in a "colorful" painting if the artist mixes his colors carelessly. I'm not a  painter of colorful images, but I do use higher chroma colors if I thought I needed them to communicate my intent. I just try to limit them to one or two, so that I can keep them under control. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

6 Inch Squared Show at Randy Higbee Gallery

Brunch, 6 x 6 inches, oil on panel
This painting is available (as of this posting) through the exhibition's website.

I hope you had a great Thanksgiving!  I ate way too much, as usual, but had a great time. 

Speaking of food, I have three small paintings that depict sidewalk cafes, all of which are in the 6 Inch Squared show at Randy Higbee Gallery.

Randy has been doing this show annually for a few years now, and I've been a part of it for all of them. It's a really great and fun "small works" show, where every single one of hundreds of paintings are 6 x 6 inches, framed beautifully by Randy and team.

Sidewalk Cafe, 6 x 6 inches, oil on panel
This painting is available (as of this posting) through the exhibition's website.

This year, I decided to do a set of sidewalk cafe paintings. I was playing with this theme for another project (which may see the light of day later in the year) and this small format was a perfect way to explore ideas. 

With these, I was able to keep things loose, with just enough information to convey what I needed to convey, and nothing more. Strategic placements of accent colors, sharp edges and high contrast make the compositions work, while light and atmosphere allow me to keep the colors very harmonious.

Yellow Umbrellas, 6 x 6 inches, oil on panel
This painting is available (as of this posting) through the exhibition's website.

The show opens this Saturday, December 7th at Randy Higbee Gallery. The reception is going to be a hopping event, so if you are in the Orange County / Los Angeles area, be sure to check it out!

If you are interested in adding any of these paintings to your collection, (and they are a steal at $500, framed)  you can purchase them before the show opens through the exhibition's website.

Check out all the other pieces in the show, too. You may find a treasure among the hundreds of pieces listed here. And some well known artists are in this show, also. You can definitely score some great deals. If you're thinking about starting a collection of original art, this is a great place to start!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Figure Drawing

I am in the middle of writing an article about figure drawing. I had no idea where to start, so I just began jotting down anything and everything that came to mind about figure drawing and very quickly, it became apparent that this is a subject matter far broader than can be covered in one article. Well, duh, right?

So I decided to narrow the scope down to just short-pose gesture drawing, which, after all, is my forte. But guess what. The scope is still too big! I had to narrow down still, so I thought I'd focus on the technical aspects of it - after all, that is what I get asked about most often. 

Which is just as well, because though I study the Old Masters' drawings, I can never keep the historical facts and names straight, much less articulate figure drawing in historical contexts. Talking about anatomy is not that interesting, either.  Yes, the knowledge of anatomy is essential, but to write about it is really boring. Besides, who wants to read about anatomy in an article? 

So it comes down to technique, and I have further narrowed the scope to economy of line. This is something I stress in my classes and workshops - when working with two to five minute poses, we can't afford to waste our time drawing unnecessary lines. There's just not enough time to render form, either. We have to get the maximum information on paper in very few strokes and make them look good.

How do we do that?

Well, that's the subject of my article. I'm not even close to finishing it, but at least I've narrowed it down to a manageable scope.

Hopefully, I can finish it soon and get it published. If not, you'll still see it here on this blog in some form or another.

If you are interested in drawing or painting the figure, especially the gestural approach, I want to let you know that I will be conducting a five-day intensive workshop in Atlanta, in mid September. The workshop will cover short pose gestures like what I've shown on this post, and how to build on that to quickly define light and shadow. Then we move onto toned paper with sanguine and conte, which transitions logically to limited palette painting. 

We'll cover all that in just five days, so it's very intensive. But I guarantee you'll get a lot out of it. 

For more information please go to the workshop page on my website.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Going Home, 24 x 48 inches, oil on panel  sold

I did several smaller paintings similar to this, exploring abstraction and compositional ideas, and this is the culmination of the series. At 24 x 48, it's a pretty good size, and it gave me a lot of trouble from start to finish. 

I don't know what possessed me to paint on a gessoed panel, but that's what I did. I struggled with the brushwork, but I think in the end I learned a lot about working on a hard surface. Mainly, that I don't like it. But I have to admit, it gave me a lot of abstract marks that I would never have gotten (on purpose, anyway) on linen, which is the surface that I use most often.

The process I use for large cityscapes with a lot of abstraction might be described as tight control -> chaos -> tight control. I started out by drawing all the elements (a lot more than you actually see in the final painting. All the cars in the distance were delineated, for example) in pencil using a grid, a pencil, and three reference photos. I don't have a wide angle lens on my DSLR, so I usually just stitch a few together for a wide angle composition like this.

Then as I usually do with any painting, I went in with dark transparent mix of ultramarine, transparent oxide red, and Gamsol and blocked in the big value patterns in two or three values, thinking at this stage about where I can lose edges and simplify.

I then proceeded to do a more complete grisaille by breaking up the big value patterns into smaller shapes and in-between values. Doing it this way (as opposed to going in with many values from the get-go) ensures that the big design is always maintained. It prevents fragmenting the design. (But only if you're doing it conscientiously).

So far, I'm still in control. Then I started going over the entire painting with opaque colors, making sure that every color is a variation of the main theme color, which in this case is an earthy yellow/orange. In a tonal painting like this, the actual local color is much less relevant than harmony.

Now comes the chaos part. I used all kinds of tools, from palette knives, to plastic scrapers, sandpaper, paper towel, brushes, and materials like Liquin and Gamsol, to slowly integrate the shapes. Pushing one shape into another, reestablishing the edge, and losing it again, sometimes working the same edge over and over.

I also did several layers of wet over dry, in the form of scumbling, glazing, staining, etc. The more I worked the surface, the more comfortable I felt about losing a critical edge, and I took more risks. At one point, the entire painting was covered in black glaze, which I then wiped/washed off.

I built up the surface this way, and when I felt I couldn't go any further, I started to tighten up again, in strategic areas, trying not to lose all the beautiful abstract marks.

When I thought I was finished, I just set it aside. After a few days it would dry, and I would see something I wanted to change. I'd work on it for a few minutes or hours, and set it aside. Then after a few more days, I'd see something else, and I repeat. This last part went on for a couple of months. Each time, I would make a small change, and let dry a few days.

Finally, I no longer saw anything and I was very happy with the painting. It was gritty, moody, simple and complex at the same time, and I was able to further my limits of abstraction from where I had been before I did this painting. That was the best part for me.

The painting left the studio soon after, and it wasn't surprising that it sold before long. To be honest, this was one I would like to have kept for myself. I kind of miss it!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Just How Popular is Plein Air Painting?

Here I am conducting a plein air demo during my workshop this past weekend.

I have noticed that in recent years, plein air painting has become very popular, and have indeed grown into an industry of sorts. But I did not realize just how popular, until this weekend when I showed up in Locke to do my workshop and was surprised to learn that two of the students who had signed up didn't quite fit the typical demographic.

Nonetheless, they were very attentive and I think they enjoyed the demo. They had to leave early because they forgot to bring their gear. Later I saw them hanging out in front of Al the Wops, the town bar looking like they owned the place. I think may be they did.

I was going to write about about my workshop at some length, but after three days I am exhausted.

Thanks Jim, for taking the photo!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Relax, It's *Just* A Sketch!

Blue Chair, 9 x 12 oil on linen

How often have you gone out painting on location, only to be discouraged by the perceived difficulty of task at hand?

If you are like most painters, you can relate to this; You get in your car to go painting, may be on a whim one beautiful morning, or may be you have a scheduled paint out with a group, or may be even at a plein air painting competition... you drive around looking for a view, you see some interesting things, but nothing strikes you as quite right.

There's no parking, there's no shade, the angle's all wrong, too noisy, too warm, too cold, too windy... So you drive on. And on. Until you've lost the light and your enthusiasm. (Not to mention 200 miles worth of gas!) It seems like the views are worse than the unacceptable ones a few hours earlier. So you just decide to go home, unhappy and with a list of excuses.

Or, you force yourself to set up at the next less-than-ideal spot, determined to get a painting done. But you are not "feelin' it" anymore. You half-heartedly block in the shapes, but you know it's gonna be a crappy painting because your heart is not in it. And of course you have a scraper, as you knew you would.

Or, you're painting in a plein air competition, and you're feeling the pressure to perform. You've somehow set the bar really high because you just can't do crappy paintings and be showing them next to those amazing works by those fabulous artists – "I'll be humiliated," you say to yourself. "And everyone will remember me as the worst painter in the show. My career will be ruined before it's even off the ground!" .  Oh the stress~!

So you tell yourself you can't paint something totally boring and stupid, and yet, if it's not that, the view looks way too difficult. Paralyzingly difficult.

Sound familiar? Relax, it's just a sketch!

Painting is difficult whether you're outdoors or not, but the added pressure to perform can be really stressful. I know. I've been there.

Nowadays, while I still find plein air painting difficult, and I still often paint a scraper for various reasons, I don't stress out about it as I used to. I've kind of gotten used to the fact that I just can't hit the ball every single time. Sometimes I strike out, and that's just a fact I've come to accept. And coming to that realization really took some weight off my shoulders.

Because, you know, the pressure to perform is all in my head. All the insecurities and excuses and bad attitudes just feed on one another and get amplified, taking all the joy out of painting.  It just becomes a chore, or worse, it can really do a number on your confidence.

Roadside Painter, 6 x 8, oil on linen

So how do you break out of this ball of negativity and get a painting done, and enjoy it while you're at it?  

One of the best ways, I've found, is to consider your task to be "just a sketch". Don't feel like you have to bang out a fully resolved, show-worthy painting, let alone a masterpiece. Just do a simple little sketch. You don't even have to finish it. It's just a name change from "a painting" to "a sketch", and how you actually go about it hasn't changed, but you'd be surprised how liberated it can make you feel. 

Sure you can screw it up, but screwing up a little sketch doesn't hurt nearly as much as something on which you stake your reputation (or so you perceive).  And guess what, it's not as easy to screw up a sketch. Did you know that? Chances are, you'll paint better than if you swung for the fences.

Second tip: This goes hand in hand with the first tip. Paint your sketch "center out". That is to say, pick a focal point. This should be an object, or just a small part of an object even. Paint that, resolve it as best you can, and then paint its immediate surroundings with a bigger brush. Just mix the colors carefully and paint them as color notes. Don't even worry that they don't look like "things". Abstraction is good. And then, go further out and use an even bigger brush and paint even more abstractly and expressively than what you just did.  And again, you don't have to finish the painting. It's just a little sketch, remember? 

The two paintings I'm posting today are examples of "just a sketch" mind set and "center out" process. Both subjects are unremarkable and ordinary, and as you can see, they are unfinished, but intentionally so. 

Not only does "permission to not finish" takes a lot of pressure off, but pictorially, the finished area (the focal point which is more or less resolved) looks even more finished by contrast. 

It turns out, this "center out" method works really well when you're faced with a complex view where you may feel intimidated by the amount of visual information you have to process, or where perspective and drawing just looks much more difficult than your skill level. I mean think about it; painting a street scene with cars and buildings all in perspective sounds kind of intimidating, but looking at the same view, but focusing on one tire or one fire hydrant doesn't sound so bad. The rest of the view will still be included, but just not so defined. The big brushes won't allow you to paint tedious detail, you see.

It forces you to be unambiguous about your focal point, and it forces you to paint all the supporting cast with less detail and more expression. That's an effective combination even if you don't consider your task "just a sketch".

Tip number three: Once you've done one sketch, look around. You may find that you see paintable views everywhere where just a few hours ago you saw nothing. This is because you are now seeing with a painter's eye, and your brain is organizing the visual information in a more purposeful way. Get another painting going right away. If you wait, you may lose the painter's eye and you're back where you started. But that's OK, you've got the "it's just a sketch" strategy to fall back on, right?

Tip number four: Remember, great subject matter doesn't necessarily make a great painting. Or a good painting, even. Sure, it doesn't hurt to have the perfect view but chances of encountering such views are slim in many areas. On the other hand, the simplest, most ordinary and unimpressive subject matter can be turned into a charming little sketch that you'd be proud to hang even next to that award-winning painter. Just give it a chance.

So the next time you're getting all frustrated because you can't find the right view, or when you find yourself feeling the pressure to perform for fear of humiliation,  just relax. it's just a sketch!

By the way, I have just one more spot left for my upcoming workshop - You can read about it here. If you're interested, don't wait to sign up!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Head Study

This head study I did last week is modeled a bit more than I usually do. I'm not a portrait painter and the heads I paint are typically devoid of details, but from time to time I have to do a tighter head to reassure myself that my looser, suggested heads are by choice and design, not because I can't do otherwise.

Still, this cowboy head isn't all that detailed when compared to many of the realist portrait painters out there.

There are many ways to approach head painting. There's no one best way, and no rule or tip is absolute because there are so many variables in each situation. Even the most general good ideas are not exempt from context, so please take the following tips that I offer with grains of salt!

  • Have a good, direct light source. Yes, many paintings use diffused lighting, but I think it's best to first have a thorough understanding of light/form relationship. And to study that, direct light is essential. Once you have a good grasp of this Form Principle, diffused light situations will make more sense.
  • Have enough value separation between light and shadow. The darkest light is lighter than the lightest shadow. 
  • Big shapes and forms need to happen first, then smaller ones as subtler variations within the big shapes. Don't start painting eyelids and nostrils before you have established the front and side planes of the skull, in other words.
  • Wherever there's a plane change, there's a value change. Yes, you can show a plane change through color/temperature change alone, but that's not a substitute for an inability to control subtle values.
  • The darkest notes often define the features. Place them as accurately as possible. 
  • Find ways to soften/lose edges around eyes and lips. You don't want sharp outlines all around them.
  • Shadow patterns in and around the eye socket often connect with the dark shapes in the eye - a good way to lose edges.
  • Eyeballs are spheres. Eyelids need to sit on this spherical surface, so don't paint them as if they're on a flat surface. 
  • The mouth, too are on a curved surface. Don't make them look like they're on a flat surface. 
  • The front plane of the face also has a curve to it. The left side and the right side should have different values.
  • Just as there's a value change on a form from one side to the other, there's a value change vertically, too. The head is like an egg, not a box. 
  • Establish these value changes on big forms quite early in the process.
  • Often (but not always) the truest and more saturated local colors are found in the halftone areas. The colors in the lighter lights (including the highlights) often dominated by the color of the light.
  • The highlight may appear cooler than the surrounding area. The light will still feel warm as long as the general relationship  of warm light vs. cool shadow is established. 
  • Form shadow edges are softer, and cast shadow edges are sharper. You get more volume if you emphasize this difference. But don't overdo it, or you'll end up with a lumpy mass.
  • The darkest darks are usually very warm. Don't just mix black and be done with it!
  • The darkest darks are usually crevices and holes, or other receding areas. They're dark because they're not getting any direct, bounced, or ambient light. Painting these areas thin and transparent really helps to make them not pop forward.
  • On the flip side, if you want an area to pop forward, opacity and impasto are good tools to use.
  • When appropriate, make sure the underplane of the nose is clearly defined. You can often see a core shadow as the forms turns under ; a small but effective shape not to be overlooked.
  • Same thing with the underplane of the lower jaw. 
  • Colors of the shadow planes depend on that of the reflected/ambient light. You should be able to tell why a shadow plane looks warmer or cooler. Knowing the reasons will help you paint these planes more decisively, rather than mindlessly copying what you see.
  • Define a hierarchy of highlight strengths. If you paint them all the same, you'll have a head decorated with Christmas lights!

OK that's enough for now - I can think of others but I'll save them for next time. If I had to summarize the most helpful tip (or I should say, what I find most helpful in my own studies), it would be "big things first." (big shapes, big forms, big value changes, big transitions...) "Paint small things as variations within the big things." and "Place the darkest darks as accurately as possible."

Again, these rules and tips are just what I think about when I do my heads. Other people have different concerns and I don't really care to argue any of the points I made. If you find them helpful, great! 

Happy painting~

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Town and Country

Hotel Sequoia, Redwood City, 12 x 9 inches, oil on linen panel

I always do a demo in my landscape concepts class, and this one is from last week. I used a reference photo which was a snapshot I took last summer when I was down in Redwood City to do a workshop. I love to paint old buildings like this –just so much character!

Anyhow, I spent some time explaining linear perspective. Finding the eye-level, the vanishing points, and stressing the importance of accuracy in these lines to depict believable space. When a student ends up with wonky drawing in their cityscapes, it's usually because he didn't pay enough attention to the vanishing points. Sloppy perspective will do you in every time.

The figures are placed after the environment is more or less established. I may indicate them at the very initial stage just so I can see the composition, but when I'm painting the building that's behind the figures or the ground plane under them, I go right over the initial drawing as if they weren't there. 

Otherwise, I'd be painting around the small, shapes and that's a sure way to lose sponteneaty and continuity. 

Once the environment is established, I draw the silhouettes of the figures with my dark, transparent mix of ultramarine and transparent oxide red. (this is the mix I use for the initial drawing, the transparent value block in, and the darkest dark accents) Gesture is the most important thing here, and proportions second only to gesture.

If the ground plane is more or less level, and the viewer (the artist) is standing on the same level ground plane, placing these figures is a simple matter of sticking their heads on the eye-level, which happens to be the horizon line. If the artists's eye level is, say, 5'4" off the ground, everything on the horizon line is 5'4" tall. 

So assuming the figure on the right is about my height, I just stick his head on the horizon line, and draw downwards from the head.  The figure on the left is shorter, so I put her head slightly lower. I have the first figure to refer to, so I just need to put her feet at about the same invisible line as the first, and I have two figures of different heights standing next to each other, correctly placed in the environment. 

If I wanted to place additional figures farther down the sidewalk, they'd be smaller, of course, but their heads would still be on or very close to the horizon line.

If you're having trouble with perspective, I recommend Ernest Norling's Perspective Made Easy from Dover Publishing. It's an old book but it does an excellent job of explaining perspective drawing in layman's terms. 

Coastal Farm, 7 x 18 inches, oil on linen panel

Coastal Farm is from the previous week. These farm buildings actually had hills stretching behind them, but I took them out because I wanted a simpler background to juxtapose against the busy middle ground.

I also wanted to see if I could make it look like it was near the coast by giving it a wispy, cool atmosphere. It's easy enough to make something coastal if you include obvious visual cues like... the ocean. But what if I didn't have any such visual element?  Would the atmosphere be enough to suggest it? 

I think so. Upon seeing this painting, two people have told me it looked like it was near the coast, without being told anything about it. (including the title, of course)  I don't know about the rest of the world, but I think, at least, it captures our California coastal atmosphere.

Both of these paintings are available (as of this post). If you are interested in adding one or both to your collection, please email me. I'll be happy to give you more information~

Spring is here! Get out and paint!!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Arcangelo 2

Arcangelo 2, oil on linen, 40 x 30 inches

I have been working on this painting for a few months now but I think it's finally finished. It is a larger, more expressive version of an earlier canvas, which was 24 x 20.  

I say I have been working on it for a few months, but 90% of it was done in the first week. I would let dry, find something else I want to fix, work on it, and let that dry. Every few days I'd see some little thing that I want to change and it and each time it would take a few minutes to a few hours of work, then another few days to dry. In this way, the last 10% of the painting took 90% of the time though most of that time was just waiting for it to dry.

Some marks had to be made wet into wet, while others had to be done on a dried surface, so it was a slow process even though the brushwork looks speedy and expressive. 

The palette I used is, as you can plainly see, very limited; Black, White, Transparent Earth Red, and Yellow Ochre. I used a lot of Liquin and Gamsol. I also did a lot of glazing, wiping, scraping and generally abusing the canvas in different ways.

I love how this turned out. Archangel Michael is a superhero of sorts, so the larger scale was very appropriate. In fact, I've started another, even larger version. I can't wait to see how that turns out!

The sculpture is by Peter Van Verschaffeldt, a Flemish (?) architect and sculptor, and this particular piece was created around the middle of the 18th Century.  It stands in Rome today.