Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Color Systems: Single-Color Structure

Working with a single color theme naturally puts the painting in a tonalist category, I'd say almost by definition because you have to do most of your composing with shifting values. 

It's simpler than using a lot of colors, but the flip side of that is you cannot hide behind splashy colors. You really have to have very good value control to pull this off. 

The idea is not complicated. You basically pick one hue, and paint more or less monochromatically, and strategically adding a little bit of color shifts to make the painting seem less monochromatic.

That's about as close to a formula as I can get! (there's that F word~)  But let me talk about each painting and see if I can pull out some of the things I did which deviated from the strictly monochrome structure, because that's where we can add a little bit of complexity and interest into an otherwise very limited color space. 

The top image of the delta, obviously, has a violet themed structure. It never gets very saturated, which help to maintain a quiet, somber mood. If you look closely, the very distant mountains(?) and the sky are slightly different in temperature - the sky has a tiny bit of red in it, which differentiates itself from the cooler hills. This is subtle, but not a tricky color shift because violet is made from blue and red. Adding a little bit of red warms up the color, and adding blue cools it, and we don't have to worry about the new mixture being out of harmony. 

The darkest land mass in the front has some Transparent Oxide Red in it. Which, if you think about it, is still red. The TOR is used, then, to control the saturation of the violet so that we don't have a screaming purple. Another way to control saturation is an addition of a low chroma blue, instead of (or together with) Ultramarine or another intense blue. For this I probably used Ivory Black as a low chroma blue.

One more thing about controlling saturation. (Because you know, I'm a little shy about using loud colors) Ultramarine is already a violet-leaning blue. Alizarin is a violet-leaning red. They are both very intense colors, so if you mix them, you get a very intense violet. Great, if that's what you're looking for. But if you want a little less intensity, you can try Ultramarine plus an orange-leaning red. The orange being complementary to blue, the resulting violet is much more muted than if you mixed Ultramarine and Alizarin. Because nothing I paint requires screaming violets, I like to use the mixture that's already a little muted even before I gray it down further with Black or TOR.

 Green. The color shifts toward yellow a bit as the values get lighter. It doesn't have to, but that's what I chose to do to deviate from a strictly green painting. I also used TOR in the underpainting and the darks of the foliage interior. Red is complementary to green, so it helps to gray down the green if you mix them. If you juxtapose them without mushing green and red, you start to get simultaneous contrast, a little bit of which helps to break up the monotony. 

Mixing Ultramarine and yellow ochre, the resulting green can't get too saturated even if you want it to, so that's a good way of limiting your intensity. You can always add Cads later if you need to punch up an area.

I tried to get some color variation in the ground plane, mixing the same three colors plus white (Ultramarine, TOR, and Yellow Ochre) in different amounts to get different, yet very closely related notes. 

Peachy! Or red orange. The single color theme sometimes isn't strictly single colored. Sometimes it's better described as a "narrow slice of pie". The pie refers to the familiar color wheel, and narrower the slice, the more specific the hue. If you cut a fat slice of pie, you're basically using analogous colors - neighboring hues such as red and orange, orange and yellow, etc.

As long as the slice of pie isn't too big, it still works the same way. In this painting, if you ignore the violet in the distant tree masses, we basically have an orange themed painting, but the lither colors (sky) has more yellow in it, and the darker colors leans more to the red slice of the pie. We are not seeing bright yellows, oranges and reds because saturation is kept in check. In this case, I'm reserving the saturated (relatively speaking) colors for the lighter range of the value scale. In the shadows, I drop not only the value but the saturation as well.  Can you use a saturated dark red in there? Sure you can. But you have to ask yourself, what's making it so bright in the shadows? The color of the sky affecting the dark areas, where it's not even facing the sky? Might make sense if someone was having a bonfire at the base of the trees. The point is, without a good reason, pushing color becomes a purely subjective decision, and the more you do it, the more you deviate from a structure that makes logical sense. What's wrong with that? Nothing, but if the painting ends up not describing a convincing light / atmosphere environment, that will be the price for your expression.

The little bit of violet in the back trees is a deviation from the slice of the pie. But not by much. The violet leans heavily toward the reds I used, and the yellow's in there too, to tamper the intensity and ensure harmony. The saturation and value are kept in check so that the violet, even though it's different from the rest of the painting, doesn't stick out.

Yellow. The lighter end of the scale is obviously yellow, and the darker end - I needed to go very dark - becomes a very grayed down dark warm color. Grayed down because at that value, we can't tell a yellow from a red. But kept warm (it's a reddish brown, very close to black) so that it harmonizes with the yellows. To ensure this, I used TOR and black both in the very dark areas, and in the very light areas. The yellow sky isn't very intense after all; the impact comes not from the yellow color, but the strong value contrasts.

This painting is a little more complex than the previous ones in that color deviation from the single-color structure includes introduction of local colors. The green of the trees, for example.  But notice that only the trees in close to the viewer is green, and the far ones just become darker version of the yellow /brown structure.

And, the greens you do see are not super green. They're more like green versions of the foundation color. I figure out the value that these greens need to be, and nudge the yellow/brown in the direction of green by slowly adding green into it. It helps to use the same yellow (ochre, in this case) to make that green. This way, I can maintain close harmony and the look of a very tonal painting.

The same thing is done with the violet grays of the pavement. They're just slightly violet version of the yellow/brown that I started with, and nudged the colors a little bit at a time till I got what I wanted.

The big exception is the bright red I used for the tail lights. Why does it work? Because 1)they're accents, used very sparingly. and 2) they are their own light sources. Because a tail light is a light source in itself, it can have its own color, especially if they're close to the viewer and are being less affected by the colored atmosphere that we have established.

Peachy again, with some local colors used as accents - the green of the palms, the reds of the tracks, and a few small spot colors on the figures at the bottom. But again, these colors are used very sparingly, and are nudges versions of the foundation colors. The red can be pushed without going out of harmony because it's part of the peachy DNA.

Blue! The dark areas become almost black, but still has a lot of blue in them. In the distance, I have a few different color shifts - some violet, which is a closely analogous color to the main blue, and green in the trees, which is also a closely analogous color, but on the other side of the slice of the blue pie. They're both nudged versions of the blue.

The sunlight in the distance is a pale yellow, but it's not very saturated at all. It does have blue in the mix, along with a bit of black, but the biggest common denominator between that pale yellow and the blue is white. You can see that the blues, especially surrounding the pale yellow sun light isn't very saturated, and the values are closer to the yellow.

To further integrate the yellow into the otherwise blue painting, I brought it in to the big field of passive area near the bottom of the painting. The Double yellow line helps to tie them together, also, but that's getting into the accent for expression's sake domain that I mentioned earlier.

And the red tail lights again. I can get away with using bright reds because they're light sources, and used as bling.

This last one is built on a muted red-violet structure. The color deviations are either analogous (pavement), nudged local color (yellow bus) or light sources (tail lights). All other variations happen within the slice of the pie.

It's a simple system, but when you put it together with slight variations, you can end up with a painting that doesn't feel monochromatic, yet very tightly harmonized. I love working this way because it's logical, yet allows for a lot of subjective variations, and I can push and pull between simple monochromatic structure and complex combinations. Tonal paintings are very effective in creating the kind of mood I want to express, and building on a single color structure keeps things from getting out of control.

Boy that was long winded! Thanks for reading till the end! Happy Holidays!!!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Color Palettes: The Brown Palette

One of the most common questions I get asked is, "what colors do you use?" so I thought I'd talk a little bit about my colors in a series of posts.

I work with a handful of different color "systems", depending on what I'm trying to do. But whatever "system" I'm using, I typically have the same set of colors on my palette - I may add one or two others as needed, and I don't always use all the colors that I squeeze out onto my palette.

The basic colors are as follows–they're all Gamblin paints, unless otherwise noted;


  • Permanent Red (Rembrandt)
  • Alizarin Permanent
  • Transparent Earth Red


  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Ivory Black


  • Cadmium Lemon
  • Cadmium Yellow Deep
  • Yellow Ochre

Titanium White

Basically, it's a variation on the primaries palette. I mix my greens, oranges, and violets instead of using tubed secondary colors. There is a warm, a cool, and a low-chroma version of each of the primaries.

Transparent Earth Red is Gamblin's name for Transparent Oxide Red. Each brand has its own name for this one.

I consider Ivory Black to be a blue. A very greyed down blue, but a blue nonetheless.

Sometimes I use Cobalt Blue instead of Ultramarine, Prussian Blue instead of Cerulean, and Paynes Gray instead of Ivory Black.

Sometimes I use Indian Yellow instead of Cad Deep.

Sometimes I use Asphaltum instead of Transparent Earth Red.

OK so those are the colors on my palette, most of the time. Now let's talk about the brown palette, which is what I used for this painting. This is your basic earth tone palette that the pre-impressionist guys used; Velazquez, Duveneck, et al. Mind you, I don't know exactly which pigments the masters used, but the system is a simple one. For the core colors, I use Ivory Black, Transparent Earth Red, and Yellow Ochre for the three primaries, plus White. I don't have some of the classic earth tones like umbers and siennas.  Nothing wrong with umbers and siennas – after all, they were good enough for the Old Masters – but mine is just an earth tone version of the simple primaries palette. I believe that the modern Transparent Oxide Red is a synthetic color as opposed to having been made with natural iron oxides, so they (the TOR) have much more intensity and are cleaner (less muddy, both visually and literally) Most of my painting I'm posting today is done with just these four colors.

The few bright colors used as accents - the green jacket the woman is wearing and the dark blue-green of the seat back has some Prussian Blue in it.

I may have used a tiny bit of Permanent Red for the man's jacket and the server's ear...and there's a spot of red on the table, and again on the bow-tie guy's cheek. But just about everything else is painted with Black, Trans. Earth Red, Yellow Ochre, and White.

This "brown" palette system works very well for old-school tonal paintings like this, especially interior scenes where there isn't very much ambient light.  Without much ambient or bounced light, the shadows become very dark, and these dark shadows are painted very thinly and transparently.

I don't particularly think that transparent shadows work very well if it's lighter in value or if you can actually see lots of color and detail in that area. There are stylistic considerations of course, but for "traditional" representational painting, I tend to reserve transparent shadows for very dark areas, and this brown palette interior genre is full of them.

You can see that the shadows in this painting are so dark they're practically black. You can also see that these dark areas connect with one another, and there are no details or color information in these areas.

There are just a few areas where you can actually see anything in the shadows - the server's apron has some shadow patterns which are lighter than the dark receding shadows so that they're visible. It's only because the apron's local value was so light to begin with that I thought I should keep it visible even in the shadow areas.

In this type of set up, you don't have a lot of colorful impact, and it would be a mistake to try to impose color contrasts into it–the brown palette is not very good at accommodating impressionist temperature shifts. You can try it, but I think you'll find that the more you do it, the less convincing the light and shadow relationship will become.

The brown palette is really good for–surprise!–brown paintings. Seems obvious, but I see students trying to combine this tonal palette with high key color temperature shifts all the time. In fact, I've tried to do it (despite my instructors telling me not to) for years before I finally came to the conclusion that may be my instructors were right.

So we can't rely on color contrasts to provide impact. But we can rely on, and get away with, value contrasts! In fact, you have a much wider value range to work with than when you're working with lots of color. You can't easily get away with huge value ranges when working with color temperature shifts, because, quite simply, the saturation of colors diminish to nothing when you approach the extremes of value (black and white).

If I were painting this scene with a more impressionist approach, you can be sure that the server's black vest and white shirt / apron would not be painted in these values; they'd be much closer in value, and taking advantage of the saturation ranges available in the mid values.

The bright(ish) colors I do use in this painting are just spot colors, or accents. They're used sparingly, and if saturation is emphasized, it's still the local color that's pushed, not the color of the light source(s).  Consequently, even if you do see light and shadow on a brighter colored area, temperature shifts therein is minimized or nonexistent. I might even say that temperature shifts are almost irrelevant in this context.

Did I already say that the dark shadows are painted transparently? OK, yes. The opposite is true of the lit areas, which are all painted opaquely. That's kind of a simple rule of thumb. But what about the shadow areas which are still visible, like the shadows on the apron? That's painted opaquely too, but not as thickly as the lit area. Plus, I dragged some transparent paint over it (glazing) after it was dry, so that it relates better to the rest of the dark shadows.

Another exception is the background, where it's a little lighter (upper right corner). That was part of the underpainting where I took a paper towel and wiped off the dark paint. I left it like that because it seemed to work as is. Thin paint doesn't jump out like thick opaque applications, so in this case it worked well even though the area is not a dark receding shadow.

Next I'll talk about the single-color-themed tonalism.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Start And A Finish

A Hint of Jasmin, 15 x 30 inches, oil on linen

Another recent favorite, A Hint of Jasmine (Click on image to enlarge) went through a lot of changes as well. The most obvious change is the color of the dress; it started out as a red dress, just like in the painting in the last post.

Somewhere along the way, the dress turned white. It's not because I wanted to express the idea of purity, or some other notion about this particular subject. The decision was a visual one. You see, I was having difficulty integrating that stark red into the rest of the painting. It seemed too isolated. By making it a white dress, I was able to lean the shadow areas toward violet, making them relate much more closely to the background.

At one point I had the background very dark. It was very dramatic, but also sinister in a way, so I brought light into it. The considerable back and forth resulted in more a involved abstract surface. Compared to the red dress stage, which was very early on, you can see the finished version has many more layers of pushing paint around.

In fact in the early stage, I was pushing paint around to find the light and shadow pattern in the folds of the drapery and the sheet. I was looking for shapes and values based on reality, whereas in the later stage, I'm going against it, in my effort to integrate and obscure.

The same comparison can be observed in the strokes that I used to paint the dress, her legs, arm, and hand; in the red stage the strokes describe form, or try to, anyway. The folds in the dress are painted fairly directly. It's straightforward. In the legs, the most visible strokes express the core shadows as the forms turn from light to shadow, meaning at this point, I'm sticking to "rules" of representational painting. In the later version, there are many notes that have nothing to do with describing form. They intrude and interrupt the conventional representation of form, becoming less about the figure lying there and more about the expression of the artist's (that's me!) identity.

It's very tricky to not lose sight of the subject completely, though, and I find it a struggle to maintain balance. I won this battle, but I lose many, too. One of these days, I hope to win more than I lose.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Lost Edges

Second Thoughts, 18 x 18 inches, oil on linen

This is one of my favorite paintings I've done recently. It took forever, too–though it may not look like it.

The background changed over a dozen times. I tried a very dark background, and a very light background, and a bunch of in-between values, and I flip-flopped a lot.

The figure itself (except the head) came together pretty quickly, mainly because I stayed within a "normal" color scheme. That is to say, the local colors of skin and dress are more or less what it was, and I did not emphasize the color of the light source nor use a subjective color theme.

I wanted her hands to be suggested and not rendered, so that took many tries of pushing paint around to make it look like I (almost) accidentally slapped paint on the right spot.  As nothing else in the painting is rendered tightly, the hands needed to fit that context too. But it's really hard to get the drawing right for a convincing gesture without resorting to noodling out each finger. I was very happy with the way they came out.

The head gave me a lot of trouble, too. I wanted to suggest anonymity and obscurity, as opposed to independent identity, which meant that I needed to paint it without much definition of actual features. 

Cropping the head where I did, is another way of not defining the identity of the figure. It has to do with creating mystery, and that means withholding information. If you know my work, you may have noticed that unless I'm specifically doing a head study, I don't paint facial features. I throw the face in the shadow, turn the head away from the viewer, abstracted it, or like in this case, chop it off and do all of the above.

This painting utilizes lost edges quite a bit. There are a lot of areas where one shape encroaches onto another, resulting in abstraction and simplification. If something doesn't need to be clearly defined, why define it? If there's a good reason – like separation of shapes creates two nice shapes rather than one boring shape, or may be it creates more tension, or it's a chance to use another color, or the painting just doesn't make sense without that separation– but there needs to be a reason for it. 

Wherever you see me lose an edge, you can be sure I've tried separating the shapes too. I may have gone back and forth between losing and keeping that edge several times. That's typical of how I work. I mean I just can't tell which is better until I see both ways. And even then, I may change my mind later as surrounding areas change as the painting develops.

One way to make losing edges less scary is to make sure your color harmony is working. In this painting, everything in light has yellows and reds in it, and everything in shadow leans toward violet. Even the brownish areas of the skin in shadow, and the dark red areas of the dress in shadow have blues in them. When two adjacent areas are not only close in value but also in color, connecting them to make one shape is a lot easier to pull off than if the colors are very different.

Two adjacent shapes being close in value is almost a given for a lost edge between them. They don't have to be exactly the same, but if they're very different, you can't connect them without having some sort of a gradation, which is more like a soft edge and not a lost edge.

The boldest lost edge in this painting is where I pulled in the background color into the girl's back. You can see I pulled the color also over the chest and the neck area. Though I didn't lose edges there, having the same colors there ties the whole area together, and helps to make sense of the foreign color in the area where we expect to see a normal skin color or that of the dress. 

The real key to pulling that off is to make it look absolutely intentional. If you're unsure or timid, it shows, and it'll look like you tried to fake it. You have to put it down like you mean it, even if you don't know what you're doing. As I always tell my students, paint like you're lying to a child.  Santa Claus? But of course he's real!

One more thing on edges. Very sharp edges are like accents, especially in a context where much of the painting is loose and brushy. I tried to use sharp edges strategically. Most of them, if paired with value contrast, help to lead the eye to the hands. Edges which are sharp but where values are close don't stand out so they don't demand attention from the viewer, but they do contribute to the sense of decisiveness and intention to the painting. But whether they're used as accents or not, they need to be used in conjunction with soft and lost edges to be meaningful. I'm only talking in the context of my paintings, of course. I can't make a broad statement like that and claim it to be true for all paintings.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Sketching People


Last weekend I tagged along with a geology class from CSU Sacramento on a field trip to the South Fork of the Yuba River. It was a really great location with lots of interesting rock formations and swimming holes. 

Actually it was my son (still a high school student)  and a few of his Science Olympiad teammates who were invited to tag along with the college kids, and I was just the driver. But I had been wanting to check out the Yuba River to scout out painting locations, so this was a great opportunity. 

Basically, while the class looked at boulders I sat around and sketched them in my sketchbook.

Most of the time, they didn't stay motionless for more than a few moments, so these are really quick drawings. My only aim was to try and capture the gesture, or the attitude of the posture in each sketch.

I used a regular ball point pen and my sketchbook is a Moleskine. 

I don't do as many of these sketches as I used to, and  I was newly reminded just how enjoyable doing these are, and how fundamental these kinds of sketches are in defining the identity in my art. I think the skills required in capturing the quick gesture is at the core of everything I do; not just when I'm painting the figure, but also trees, rocks, even cars and nonrepresentational abstract marks. 

Some thoughts on doing quick captures:

Don't worry about doing good drawings. Just do a ton of them, one after another. You have to let go of expectations and allow yourself to do bad sketches.

It's about the gesture. That means, you need not and should not even think about likenesses. Instead focus on communicating what the figure is doing. And this goes for large overall gesture of the whole body, as well as individual curves and straights. What is that shoulder doing? What kind of curve is that shin? 

If you try to follow the precise outline of an arm (or a head or a leg or back or whatever), you're only thinking about shape. Or worse, just the outline of the shape. Shape is going to happen anyway when you draw both sides of the torso (or the arm or the leg or...) so don't worry about the exactness of the shape. Instead worry about what that shape is doing. Is it stretching? contracting? curving gracefully? supporting weight? flowing from one point to another? Overlapping? Obscuring? Turning around? Twisting? Cutting something off? Lining up with something else? What's it doing?

These are the questions that go through my head as I sketch. Likeness will happen on its own when you get the gesture right. It's almost like magic.

Try to see the whole figure at once. If you only look at the tip of your pen or pencil, you're not relating the line you're drawing to anything else. Consequently you will have a hard time with proportions. 

When you are seeing the whole figure, big proportional errors are really easy to spot. And when you spot them, you can fix them. If you can't spot them (because you're not seeing the whole figure), you have no hope of fixing them.

With these quick sketches, there's no time for measuring, so seeing the whole figure becomes even more important.

It's easier to see the whole figure when you draw smaller.

Drawing around the form - using cross-contour lines- is just as important as drawing the outside contours. And these cross contours should never be treated as an afterthought to add volume to an otherwise flat drawing. They should be used as you build form on the paper. 

Sometimes these lines are clearly visible as hem of a shirt or pants, cuffs of a shirt, brim of a hat, hairline, belt, stitches in clothing, etc. Other times, you just have to put them in to show volume. Think about how you would draw a sphere (a three dimensional form) rather than a circle (a flat shape with no volume). If you could only use line and not rely on shading, how would you do it?

Straight lines are easier than curved lines. If some part of the body has a very straight "attitude", emphasize it by using a straight line. Sounds obvious, but if you look closely, rarely you see an actual straight line on the body so anything you represent as a straight line on paper is you imposing your perception onto your drawing. 

Treat curves similarly. Accuracy of the curve is not important. It's how you interpret and impose the attitude of that curve onto paper that makes your drawing come alive with your intent.

When drawing one side of a form, look at what the other side is doing. Does one side echo the other side's attitude? Does it oppose the other side? Does it play call and response? Trying to verbally describe how the two sides of a form relate to one other forces you to consider the intent of your line.

When you draw a line, see if it has a rhythmic quality that flow into another part of the figure. Emphasizing this "flow" will have a profound impact on the gestural quality, and also on composition as whole. This is what we call continuity of rhythm and if you look at old master's drawings, you'll see it used all over the place. And you'll start to notice that this flow is not accidental, but it's actually the intent of the artist. 

Anyway, get sketching'!! You can do this just about anywhere, and it takes no time at all to do one or two figures while waiting to pick up your kids at school. And you don't even need your paints. I don't know about you, but I really have no excuse for not doing them. (Guilt motivates me. So there.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Rainy Night, Chicago

Rainy Night, Chicago, 18 x 48 inches, oil on linen

Here's a painting that I did recently. I was in Chicago for a few days this summer, and took a bunch of  photos while walking around aimlessly. I've started a series of cityscapes based on this trip, and this is  one of the first ones. 

I hadn't done a lot of nocturnes up to now, so this was a new challenge for me. It turned out to be quite an educational experience. 

One of my goals, as usual, was to push abstraction. In this particular case, all we really see are bunch of lights and reflections on the wet pavement, with a few recognizable "things" to help define the context. I wasn't sure if it would be enough to carry a composition and a depiction of a convincing environment, but I think it worked out better than I expected.

I worked on this over several sessions, so there's a lot of wet on dry layering going on, as well as wet into wet mushing around. I like to combine the two to get interesting interaction between notes and edges.

The crosswalk going across the painting was towards the end of the painting. On a dried surface, I used a straightedge to draw in the line with a pencil, (it's actually done in three or four sections, to give it a very slight curve) which I used as a guide to paint the lines. Then I worked the paint to integrate the lines into the surrounding areas, so that they wouldn't look pasted on. Variations in value and color were done at the same time.

The various lights and their halations(?) were done wet into wet, generally. I would first paint the area without the lights, and then drop the halation in, working the wet paint to soften its edges, followed by the bright "center" with slightly firmer edges. I tried to make sure each of these light centers had unique shapes, just so they didn't look stamped in.

The halation effect is the light sources illuminating the moisture in the air, in this case rain drops and drizzle. It's essentially the same thing as sunsets being orange, just on a very small scale.  They are in effect, transition areas between the surrounding darkness and the bright light center. If my light centers are opaque and the darkness around them are transparent, how should I paint these transition areas? If I acknowledge that these transitional areas are rain drops and drizzle being illuminated–that is to say, they are lit things,  I can apply the rule of thumb; if it's lit, paint it opaque. 

Obviously there are many ways to paint with oils and opacity and value can be thought of independently. You can paint these areas transparently, if one so choses. I just like to have a logical answer to my questions, and besides, I've tried it a bunch of different ways and opaque halation always looks better than transparent. In my paintings, anyway.

Oh, and if you'll notice the yellow lights next to the big light post on the left side of the painting, they are affecting the value and color of the pole even though the lights are behind the pole? What's up with that? That's diffraction, where light bends around the object as it passes by it. In practice we see this in painting trees in landscapes. Say a tree is painted against the sky, which is much lighter than the tree mass, the small branches against the sky are painted much lighter than the big trunk, even though the local value of the twiggy branch is the same as that of the big trunk. Why? because the light coming through the branches bends around them so some of the light spills in front. Similarly, if we are looking through a window at a much brighter world outside, the small lines of window panes need to be painted lighter than the window frame for the same reason in order to look right. 

If you push this effect a little bit, what you end up with is a suggestion of a more atmospheric view, a very effective device in creating mood. 

This painting is at Sloane Merrill Gallery in Boston. If you're in the area, drop on by and check it out!

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Looser Start

The last post was an example of a tight start (d)evolving into a more abstract expression. I think I mentioned that I don't always work that way. In fact, more often than not I start my paintings quite loosely.

This one I'm showing today is a smallish (7 x 14) study for a larger painting.  The first image is the start of the painting. As usual, I'm using Claessens No.66 oil primed linen, and using a small brush, I drew out the placements of the major elements.

The brown color is Asphaltum, which is just a mixture of bone black and mars red, I think. It's a warm transparent reddish brown that's not as red as transparent oxide red, and cleaner than burnt sienna.

Sometimes I use a straight Ivory black for this stage, and often I mix transparent oxide red and ultramarine. But any grayish brownish transparent dark color will do.

The composition is basically an arrangement of dark geometric shapes in a light valued field, so it didn't require tricky drawing or anything. It's just a pattern.

The really tricky thing, I thought, was the firescape, its shadows, and the traffic light all stacked on top of one another. I wanted this area to be a somewhat abstract jumble at first read, and may be make sense upon further study. In other words, I wanted expressive mark making to obscure some of the literal depiction.

Same thing with the far left dark shape representing another traffic light post. It's a lot of painting, scraping, repainting, pushing and pulling. The identification of these abstracted elements rely heavily on the context within which they exist. It's not dissimilar to how we see the world around us. We can only focus on just a small area of our field of vision, and everything in the periphery is blurred / abstracted, (especially if we are moving) and yet we are able to identify the various objects in our field of vision and recognize how our environment is laid out.

If something is out of context, we notice it. On the other hand, if something is perfectly in context, we don't need it to be defined so clearly for it to be recognizable.

By starting the painting very loosely, I'm able to establish the visual context very early. I can get a rough idea of just how much definition is needed for the environment to make sense. Once that's established, the degree of "tightening up" is not for recognizably of things, because we can already tell what it is. That squarish blob is a window, for example. We know this without having to render window panes. 

So how do I decide how much further to go? For me, the question is one of balance and expression. I pick a few elements to describe relatively tightly, to provide a focal point and an anchor of sorts for my visual context. And I decide which areas can be so abstracted that they can't be recognized without context. Everything in between, is... everything in between. 

I play with super sharp edges against goopy paint, thick areas against thin, textural against smooth. I try to have fun just pushing paint around, always checking to see if it fits my context. If it doesn't, does it still work? Sometimes it does, other times, it needs to be reined in. But if I can remember just how little information was needed to define the environment in the initial loose lay-in, I can keep myself from over rendering. In theory, anyway. 

In practice, it's still hard to stay loose and expressive. Painting loosely (yet drawn well) didn't come naturally to me, and it doesn't to most painters. I'm an analytical guy (I think I have two left brains) so even learning to painting loosely had to be somehow logical.  

It's starting to look intuitive, finally, so I'm pretty excited about that.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

She Disintegrates

Upon reading the last post, a reader asked me whether it would make sense to first paint the figure with a lot of information and then proceed to break it up, or would it be better to start with lots of abstraction and tighten up only where necessary.

Good question. if you ever find out, let me know!

Seriously, I don't know which works better. I do both ways, depending on whim, mostly. I do like my images to be driven by good drawing, so at some point –either at the very beginning or much farther into the process– I like to have the entire figure drawn convincingly. 

Most of the time I don't really get excited about rendering realistically, nor do I think it's relevant in what I do, but once in a while a certain level of realism creeps in. I suspect it's when I'm feeling a bit insecure that I start noodling, not knowing where to take it or how to express myself. 

I don't fight the impulse, for I know that if I keep going, sooner or later I'll have satisfied my doubts about painting "realistically" and then I'll get bored with it. Consequently abstraction and expression are inevitable. 

The painting I'm posting today is one such example. The very first stage, at the top of the page, was painted with a live model in a couple of hours. I don't remember why exactly I decided to paint her this way, but I had a rather rendered painting at the end of the session.

I have to stress that I don't normally paint this tightly. Only once in a while, just for kicks.

The seated pose didn't work too well, because I didn't do a good job placing the figure on the 12 x 9 panel, and her knees and her finger tips came too close to the edge, which bugged the hell out of me. 

My solution was to change her pose. As the seated figure was just one session with a model, this posed a bit of a challenge. The model's gone, and I have no reference photos or drawings. Can I change the pose without any refs? I didn't know, but I decided to try it. I mean what have I got to lose? It was already a loser, so no risk there. 

The new pose turned out ok. I only changed the lower part, and her arm, so it wasn't too drastic. The lighting was simple, so there was no need to make up a complex shadow pattern either.

At this point, I simplified the background and rendered the figure in a pre-impressionist glazey style. Still in the realist mindset, but not concerned about subtle skin tones. This is a more or less a monochromatic tonal rendition.

It's a simpler representation than rendering subtle warms and cools of the flesh, because all I'm doing is modulating value without dealing with temperature shifts. 

After letting the painting sit around for several weeks, I came back to it and started to introduce some abstraction. I was playing around with background patterns, (changed many times) and repainted the figure using opaque, patchy strokes.  The patchy shapes don't necessarily have anything to do with the form it sits on. I'm still controlling the values carefully, but I'm also intentionally not responding to the form with my strokes. It's harder to do than it sounds, especially if you've been trained to mind the form with stroke directions all these years.

But disconnecting my strokes from following the form, I found, is a significant way to move away from realism, while maintaining realism with values. Does that make sense?

This is where I am right now. I'm still fiddling with background, trying different colors. The figure is breaking up more and more, and the rate of change, if you will, is becoming faster as I become more and more comfortable with the idea of abstracting this particular figure.

It's a funny notion, that I have to become comfortable with abstraction each and every time I start a new painting. It's like going through the same journey of insecurity, tentative attempts, loss of control, and embracing risk over and over again.

I suppose I'm attracted to this maddening roller-coaster ride, and that's why I keep coming back to it.

This painting is not finished. I'm still fiddling with it. The next step is to try some bigger strokes in the background. As it is, the notes in the background seems too fussy.

After that, I'll reassess and see what else jumps out at me.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Process of a Painting: "Hours Slip Away"

 Hours Slip Away, 14 x 11 inches, oil on linen

So I think I mentioned that I'm doing a whole bunch of black and white studies using short-pose life drawings, right? And I think I also mentioned that I plan on using these studies to experiment, and hopefully develop some of these into something worth keeping and showing?

OK, so here is one of the first black and white studies that I took further, and as I really like how it turned out, I thought I'd share. 

This was B/W No.5. I'm not doing the take it further thing in order. I have sixty-something studies on my wall now, and I just picked this one at random.

This is the original drawing. It was probably a 10 minute drawing. Compared to the finished painting, the drawing shows a more dynamic gesture. It's easy to lose gesture when I get lost in the process. I do check it often and sometimes I fix it, as was the case with Galatea, but if I like the later gesture better, I keep going with it. 

I did like the gesture in the original, but the center of gravity was a little off and it bugged me, so I tried to fix that in the early stage.

This is the B/W study done from the drawing. Already I've taken it a bit further than just a straightforward representational study. Note the lost edges on her left shoulder, hair, left upper arm, and her thighs.

I'm always looking for opportunities to lose edges, and I try different areas throughout the process. Some areas need hard, crisp edges - I like to put those in areas where the silhouette defines the attitude of the pose, or a part of the pose.

In this case, her right arm and the torso's edge on that side (showing the bend) was a lot more informative and interesting than her left side, so I wanted to play up the edges on that side and subdue the left hand side.  I didn't obscure all of the left side, obviously, for I needed some information, but I didn't think it needed to be spelled out too clearly.

I kept working on it in black and white and various shades of gray, but at some point, I decided to go to color. I glazed a mixture of black, transparent oxide red, and Liquin on top of a dried surface. You can see that it creates a color direction instantly. It looks like a colorized photograph, which is a cool look, I guess, but I didn't want that for this painting. It's too easy. I thought I should struggle some more.

Her hair became dark instead of blonde, which gave more contrast up at the top. The dark mass at the top counterbalances the butt area, which was a bright target in the middle of the picture.

I like to juxtapose transparent areas with opaque areas, and whereas I really don't have a method or system as to where to go transparent and where to go opaque, lighter areas do tend to be painted opaque because I need to use white.

Here, I've started to work back into the figure itself, rendering some form in the lit area. Again, I don't have a specific method. I'm just mixing values and painting, trying to keep in mind the planes and the direction of the light source.

Typical for this kind of work (experimental, process, deconstructive, abstract), the background changes many times. I typically try both very light and very dark backgrounds, as well as combination of light and dark, and middle grays. I change my mind a lot, which is why these paintings take forever to do, even though they're small panels (14 x 11).

By this stage, I've painted and repainted all areas several times. I like to work a few hours at a time, letting the painting dry in between sessions. This gives me some mental distance from the painting too, so I can come back to it with a fresh set of eyes. 

I struggled a lot with the gesture of the legs. I didn't want as much gesture as the drawing, but I didn't want them to be static and symmetrical, either. I wanted them to be lost in the shadows, which meant they weren't going to have any rendered information. The silhouette had to do all the work, and they needed to look integrated into the background in a textural, expressive way, but at the same time, the silhouette had to be shaped extremely carefully.

I think this duality - precision vs. seemingly random expressive marks, is one of the main factors that attracts me to push abstraction in my paintings. 

Finally I had the shapes just how I wanted them, and I worked more on integrating the figure and the ground. I often lose too much  when I try to do this, and I have to redraw and repaint over and over. As inefficient as that seems, it's the only way I can get the surface quality and a sense of truth that I'm looking for.

I'm pretty happy with this one.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

I'm Unfaithful

Night Ride, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen

Unfaithful... to photo references, that is.

One of the most often asked questions is "do you use photo references?" And the answer is I do, for cityscapes. 

My landscapes are often done en plein air, or if it's a studio piece, I use plein air sketches as references, or I paint from memory (which might be more accurately describe as inventing a view. Also known as making stuff up).

For figurative work, I either paint using a model, or use drawings (5 - 15 minutes done from life) as references.

That is to say, I usually don't use photo references for landscapes or figurative work. But for cityscapes, I almost always do because often I can't set up my easel where I want, and there's not enough time to put down all the information I need, if I were to do it en plein air. (Which doesn't stop me from trying from time to time but usually I fail)

The thing that surprises a lot of people is how much I deviate from the reference. Check it out;

This is the reference I used for the painting. As you can see, I completely changed it.  To be sure, this one goes a little further away from the original photo than most, but it's not at all unusual for me to change this and move that to make the painting completely different from the photo.

I think one of the reasons is that my reference photos are usually just snapshots and not the highest quality - I don't even pretend to be a competent photographer - so I can hardly rely on my references being good compositions to begin with. That mindset liberates me and allows me to compose my pictures, using the photo only as a starting point, and to provide some structural information.

Also true is the fact that when I was at art school, I was studying to become an illustrator and my great fear was that out there in the real world, I might at some point get an assignment that I couldn't do, because I lacked the ability to create a mood, or lighting, or an environment or a situation without those perfect references photos. So I worked really, really hard at understanding how visual reality worked, so that hopefully, I'd at least be able to fake any situation that a client threw at me. 

What that did, basically, is to put me in a habit of  using any crappy photo and trying to make something out of it. Or make multiple variations addressing different issues from a single reference photo. That habit has become a core part of how I make paintings nowadays, and I'm kind of glad about that.

This photo is actually a crop of a larger view; a shot that I've made into another painting earlier. This was a nice view, and the painting was OK, but it's been done so many times by other artists that I found it difficult to make it into something uniquely mine. Iconic subject matter have that problem sometimes. Especially if it's a tourist destination. 

Cityscapes are difficult enough to paint without having to think about expressions of one's identity. I mean, there's all these interesting visual elements, any number of which could make a compelling focal point. In trying to make a single statement, we have to cherry pick what's important and what isn't, and create a clear hierarchy of visual importance on our canvases. Photo references don't have that subjective hierarchy because it shows everything with equal strength and importance, especially if the photo was taken by an amateur like me. 

As I painted a study for this painting, I started out fairly literally, and kept taking out information which I thought were not part of the main story. In frustration, sometimes I would paint out a whole section with broad, violent strokes of black, and in doing so, the painting became darker and darker. 

Soon it started to look like a night view. A-ha! Darkness is a wonderful device for simplification and creating mystery. Although I wasn't going for a nocturnal piece at first, I recognized a good thing when I stumbled upon it. 

Who cares if it looks nothing like the photo? Unless it's a commission piece where expectations are clearly spelled out, or if I'm trying to create a specific type of imagery, I leave myself wide open to accidents and meandering processes. I believe that it's very important to be able to paint what you initially envision, but I also believe, when appropriate, that getting lost in the process and allowing accidents and discovery to lead the way, is a great way to work.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Transparent Water

Painting water is challenging. It's generally a good idea to focus on one of the three characteristics; movement, reflectivity, and transparency. Often we see more than one of these characteristics simultaneously, but I think it makes sense to play up just one, and subordinate the others because making a single statement almost always makes for a stronger painting.  

Not saying you can't have more than one in your painting. Just saying emphasize one, and deemphasize the others, lest your impact be - ahem - watered down. (Sorry! too much wine!)

I'll just talk about the transparency today.  There's really no trick to it. If you just paint the values and the colors that you see, you will have a pretty good depiction of transparent water. The problem is we have a hard time ignoring the thingness of things and seeing just colors and values. We tend to think, "oh that's a rock. so it must be this color." or "it's water, so I have to mix a blue". 

If you can see color and value without thinking about what it is you're looking at somehow, that would be helpful. Easier said than done, right? You can learn to do this, but it does take a lot of practice. There are some things you can do to force the eye into seeing abstractly. Like looking at the view upside down by bending down and viewing through your legs. You'll look pretty silly but hey, who needs dignity when you're learning? 

You can try not looking at the object directly, but use your peripheral vision to determine the color of the object. Or make your sight go out of focus. Take off your glasses if you wear them. You can also blink your eyes repeatedly like strobe lights. You can "scan" the view by moving your head from side to side and taking in the color but avoiding focusing on any one object. You can look through a small hole in a neutral colored piece of cardboard, isolating the color.

All these techniques are intended to disengage the mind from thinking about the thingness of the things you're intending to paint and just take in the color and value information.

But after you are able to see and determine the colors of all the things that need to go into the picture, you still have to paint them.

The way I approach it is fairly organized. I wouldn't call it a formula because it's too general to be one, but it's logical nonetheless. Like everything else I do, I try to establish a broad contextual relationship first. That means blocking it (the water) in, with an average color of the water (don't think water. Just think color and value), or a few colors that makes a simple gradation. In the paintings I'm showing on this post, the gradations might be made from a dark mossy green to an ochre-ish color.  I try to keep it very simple - nothing more than a block in. 

Also important is that all the other elements (trees, shoreline) are blocked in too. The major "areas" have to work together, especially value-wise, so it's crucial to establish these relationship at an early stage. In other words, I don't just work on the water and hope to do the rest of it later. 

And then I look for submerged rocks and define them by indicating their shadows. What color are they? Well, since I approach my paintings tonally, the first thing I might do, is to just mix a darker version of the color of the water block-in. And then determine whether it's a little warmer or a little cooler, and make subtle adjustments by mixing a darker red or a darker blue, and draw them in. 

Often I see that some shadows look warmer than others, so I make sure they're not all the same. Also, I don't copy the rocks as I see them. I take cues from what's there, but I don't hesitate to change shapes, sizes, and locations so as to redesign my underwater rock garden. 

I mean, I think it's nice to be able to paint them exactly as they are, but I think it's nicer to end up with a compelling composition.

Oh, and these darks are painted fairly thinly, with transparent or semi-transparent pigments (Trans. Oxide Red + Ultramarine, for example). Dark areas like these represent shadows, cracks, and holes where light is not reaching, so I want these areas to be quiet and subordinate to the lit areas surrounding them. In juxtaposing thicker, opaque paint against thin transparent paint, the thicker paint will stand out more, while the thinly painted areas recede, (not talking about distance here. I'm just talking about whether an area jumps out at the viewer, demanding attention, or not)  so I want to take advantage of these characteristics and paint dark, quiet areas with thin, transparent colors. 

Once the shadows are in, we can see the rocks. Now we can differentiate each rock from its surrounding color by painting it in a color/value that is a variation of the original block-in color. If it's sunny, these rocks may be lighter, but that also depends on the local color/value of the rocks themselves, so they may be darker. You just have to look and make that determination individually. 

Some of the rocks may be sticking out of water, and these are often significantly lighter than its submerged parts. They make great accents or punctuations in the composition, so I place them carefully, trying different positions, quantity, sizes, and shapes. Mother Nature didn't put these accents in the water with our paintings in mind, so they don't necessarily make the best compositional devices if we paint them literally. 

On these above-water rocks, especially if the water is moving, we see darker values where it's wet but not submerged, right where water's surface meets the rock. To make sure they look wet, we have to make careful value shifts in this area. Often this dark wet areas have sharp edges. 

So if we break down the color/value variations on a single boulder, we have 1)dry lit areas, 2)wet above-water lit areas, 3)dry shadow areas, 4)wet above-water shadow areas, 5)submerged lit area, and 6)submerged shadow area.  And that's not even counting halftones and planar shifts.  Of course, we can simplify it as much or as little as we can get away with. The amount of small variations we put on each rock would depend on its context, and the artist has to make those decisions based on whether more or less information helps or hurts the painting.

There are often very bright, small, sharp highlights where the water's surface touches the rock, too, as small waves reflect the sun directly into our eye. These highlights are really effective, but if you overdo them, they look hokey, so use them sparingly.

That might be a good segue into talking about reflections, but that's another day's post. This post kinda got long winded already. If you have read this far, thanks for your patience!!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Moving Targets En Plein Air

I painted this on site during this year's Sonoma Plein Air Festival. I had my easel set up across the street from this cafe, and painted this in about an hour and a half.

As I was working, a few people stopped by to watch and they all asked how am I painting moving people? If it's a non-artist asking, there's usually some joking around; "Gotta be pretty quick, huh?" or "did you pay those people to sit still?"  Every time I include people in my plein air street scenes, I hear these comments at least once during the painting process.  I groan inside but I don't want to be rude, so I just laugh like it was the first time I've heard anyone make that joke.

But sometimes an artist will stop by and ask how to do it. And I explain to him that each figure is a composite of a bunch instantaneous impressions. The people sitting and drinking coffee at the tables don't move a whole lot (relatively speaking) so they're not too bad, but the waiter coming and going is a little tricky.

When you think about it, all painting is done from memory. You look up, you take in the information, commit to memory, and you look away. You can't see both the subject and your palette / panel at the same time, after all.

I try to focus on gesture, above all. Sure, you need information on light and shadow, colors and values, not to mention shapes and scales, but the gesture is the one thing that's fleeting and it's the one thing that communicates movement, a sense of life.

Because the waiter's job is repetitive, he'll strike a similar pose again and again, allowing me to study his posture each time, and make adjustments to my efforts.When I'm focusing on gesture, I look at the figure and try to memorize the general shape and flow of the main parts of the body. I try to draw to communicate what the figure is doing, not what he looks like. And this mind set is key. What is the back doing? What is the arm doing? Which foot is supporting the weight?

Also, when I'm focusing on gesture, I'm not thinking about color. When I'm thinking about color, I'm not thinking about gesture. These things can be done on separate glances. If I had to think about gesture and color at the same time (and value and edges and opacity and viscosity and texture and...) I'd just get confused.

But when all is said and done, the only way to get good results is... you guessed it, practice. Practice your short-pose gesture drawing constantly! Go to open sessions and do short pose (1 to 20 minutes) drawings at least once a week. On other days, you can practice in your sketchbook as you sit in a coffee shop or in your car waiting to pick up your kids. Or whatever.

Or you can take a photo. But I'm sure I don't have to tell you, it's an entirely different experience. There is this immediacy in working from direct observation that is immensely enjoyable and satisfying.

Even if the painting doesn't turn out, I get a kick out of trying to paint moving subjects.