Terry Miura • Studio Notes

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.