Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Yes, I Do Use Photo References

Rendezvous, 18 x 18 inches, oil on linen

Yes, I do use photo references. Hardly ever for landscapes, and usually not for in-studio figurative works. But I need structural references when I'm painting cityscapes and figures in environments outside of the studio - like this one I'm posting today.

The thing is, I'm not a very good photographer. I can take decent photos if I all the planets aligned at the point when I press the shutter, but that rarely happens. Consequently, if I'm out in the city taking reference photos, I'm not thinking too much about specific paintings. I'm just shooting (often while driving) anything that catches my eye. What I end up is a ton of crappy snapshots. 

But that's OK, I always find a few that has potential. The thing is, these photos never result in good paintings if I just painted them as they are. They need to be altered, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically, in order for a workable composition to emerge. If I were a really good photographer, this may not be the case, but like I said, I'm not.

Here's the reference photo I used to make the painting;

What do you think? Taking liberties? You bet. For me, photo references need to offer information without which I can't build a painting. In this case, I needed the reference for the gestures of the couple. I can't make that up.  But everything else is supporting cast, you see. I simplified the environment to showcase the two figures. 

Using the photo reference this way, it's important to be clear about what's essential and what's not. And in order to know what's essential, you need to first have an idea about what the painting is going to be about. This is the concept. Composition supports the concept, and visual elements are manipulated to make an effective composition. If you are very clear about the concept, the editing decisions shouldn't be too difficult or confusing. 

Is it important that the girl be wearing a sweatshirt? It wasn't important for my concept, but depending on your concept, the answer may be yes. And if so, is it important that it be blue? Do her pants have to be red? Does he have to be wearing a whit t-shirt? Shorts? Does the cafe wall have to be green? Why?

In art school, the instructors in some classes would pummel us with questions like these in an attempt to get us students to think more deeply about the concept, and I think it's good practice even if you aren't in school. 

My aim was to create a sense of narrative which hinted at, but not explain, what the story was between these two people. I didn't want to spell it out for the viewer. I wanted the viewer to come up with his own storyline. 

I changed their clothes to suggest there was some kind of story beyond just two people hanging out. The dark color of the dress allowed me to create contrast there, so that the woman became the primary focus. One of the first decisions I made was to assign primary and secondary roles to the two figures, since I didn't want the two to have equal visual weight.  

Although I changed the clothing, I did refer to the photo to get the light/shadow pattern on the woman. The man ended up in a dark suit in the shadow, so that I may create more mystery, and also play with the design by losing a lot of the edges of his contour.

The woman's face being in shadow, and the man's entire head being in shadow, obscuring their identities, is intentional and an essential device in creating that sense of anonymity. I think the viewer can relate more to a painted figure if the figure's specific identity is not clearly defined. If you're familiar with my figurative work, you may have noticed that I do this a lot. Check it out.

In order to for the guy's head to be in shadow, I included the awning at the top of the painting. The lettering gave me an opportunity to include sharp, carefully drawn marks, adding to the variety of paint application I used in the picture.  I only showed a section of the words and the street number, because that was enough to accomplish what I wanted the lettering for, and I didn't want this to be a specific place.

Being faithful to reference photo works in some cases, but for me, copying a photo doesn't give me any pleasure at all. Because my photos are mere snapshots, often random, they are usually not based on ideas. Without an idea to drive the composition, I would just be going through the motions. (Even a study or an exercise has a purpose. Or should.) In that sense, my reference photos provide necessary information, but if I want to express an idea with my painting, making a painted version of a photograph will never work.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Windy City

Windy City, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen

One of my favorites from my Chicago series.  The greenish grey color that make up most of the painting is done with black, white, and yellow ochre. Just different amounts of each to create variations of one another. I probably had Transparent Oxide Red on the palette as well, and mixed it in a little bit to get a warmer variation here and there, but not much.

I introduced a few high chroma notes to break up the monotony, but I tried to limit color as much as possible. Why? Because I didn't think I needed them to get the mood I wanted. 

There are a couple of key strategic moves here to make this work. One is backlighting. Backlit objects naturally lend themselves to silhouette treatments, and that means flat shapes which are recognizable without details nor modeling. Flat shapes are much simpler than something that has to be defined through light and shadow patterns, but they have to be interesting and strong. 

When we view visual elements in a painting as flat shapes, it's much easier to push abstraction because we're not worried about rendering form to make something believable. Silhouettes are already flat shapes, so the mental jump from representational to abstraction is easier.

If a shape is so strong that you only need to define a part of it for it to be recognizable, it gives us further opportunity to abstract. We can connect shapes of similar value - in my painting, the foreground figure to the left and the right both lose a chunk of their contour to an adjacent/overlapping shape, yet they clearly maintain their reconizability. 

Connecting shapes simplifies the design, and more often than not creates a stronger impact. 

Backlighting also amplifies the atmospheric effect. So in order to create a believable sense of a backlit environment, I emphasized the atmospheric perspective in the buildings by making the values much lighter as we go back in space. The rate of increase in values is more drastic than if I were trying to represent a  less atmospheric condition. (the distance from the foreground to the farthest building might only be a quarter or half mile)  I didn't really worry about color and temperature being affected by atmosphere because this was pretty much a monochromatic set up.

The middle figure in the front is my focal point. The blond hair is the only place in the painting that color is used, and the value contrast there really helps to draw the eye there.  I also intentionally used more sharp edges and value contrasts in the rest of the figure as well. If you compare the middle figure with the ones toward the edges, it's easy to see the differences in the use of sharp edges and value contrasts. 

Overall, it looks pretty loosely painted, and it is, except for a select few areas where the edges were critical in order to define the gesture. Also I snuck in some linear perspective cues in the sidewalk, and the top left edge of the building with the windows. Additional suggestion of perspective is found in the left most building halfway up (see that slightly dark stroke?) and in the crosswalk lines. You can find more if you look closely, but I tried to obscure most of the initial perspective lines and leave just enough to define the space. 

The horizon line / eye level is that of an average person standing on level ground, which makes it easy to place figures in the picture; no matter where they are – close, far, left, right, or in the middle – their heads line up at the same eye level. I can also place cars more or less accurately - the roofs of sedans and coupes would be slightly lower than than the eye level, SUVs at or slightly higher, and trucks and buses above eye level. 

If you're transposing a photo, you don't have to worry about this stuff, but I find that photos are never perfect and I always need to move figures and cars around in order to design a better composition. Understanding the basic rules of linear perspective will allow you to do this, rather than be a slave to photo references, so it's well worth spending the time to learn the basics!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Rambling About A Moody Landscape

Arcadia, 12 x 24 inches, oil on linen

Here's a moody landscape painting. There are a lot of ways a landscape painting can be moody, but the defining characteristic for this particular painting, I think, is the sky. The colors of the sky is greyed down, yes, but perhaps more importantly, the overall value of the sky is keyed down quite a bit. 

If you compare the value of the sky to the white of webpage that surrounds it, you can see how dark it is. Just because Carlson said the sky is the lightest plane in a landscape, that doesn't mean it's necessarily very light in value. It's all relative. In fact there are many paintings out there where the sky is intentionally keyed down so the harshness of the sunlit surfaces become amplified. (Look at Sorolla!) 

Mine is not one of those harsh sunlit paintings, of course. It's just a low-key painting. 

The sky and the lit part of the foreground are about the same value in my painting, but the grass is much more saturated in color, and the area is much more visually active (brush strokes, texture, small contrasty notes) so that it comes foreword without confusing the structure. 

The interesting thing about the sky, for me, is that the pinkish hue of the clouds and the blue-grey of the background is very close in value and although they are near-complements, they're really tightly harmonized. How is this done?

It's basically the center of the pie. Both colors are so close to the center that even though they're pulling towards opposite sides of the color wheel, they remain closely related. 

I made both colors from the same pile of grey- I don't remember if I made the pinkish grey first and bent it to make the blueish grey or vice versa. It doesn't really matter which came first, actually. You can do it either way, one's not more difficult than the other. 

If on the other hand, you were trying to get a closely related complements by starting with pure hues on the opposite sides of the color wheel and mixed with each other to bring them closer, you'd probably end up with a more colorful result, unless you were pushing specifically for something this muted.

Keeping all the elements in the sky close in color and value allows the whole sky to be viewed as a unit, so as to not distract from the trees and the ground. I also made sure the brushstrokes in the sky were much quieter than the rest of the painting.

The trees are keyed way down, too. So much so that the shadow parts of the trees are almost black. Making sure these dark areas are painted thinly (compared to the lit areas) and somewhat transparently allows them to be quietly subordinate. In a low key tonal painting the shadows can be very dark and transparent, which isn't usually the case for a color-filled high key shadows of an impressionist painting. 

Here's a good tip; don't mix the tonalist language (dark transparent shadows) and the impressionist language (high key color filled shadows) in one painting, unless there's a really compelling reason to do so. Most of the time, it's best to decide on one language and stick to it. In other words, don't try to mix the dramatic values of Velazquez and the bright colored light effects of Monet in one painting. 

It looks like I've totally gone off on a tangent - haha~ Oh well, I'm just rambling. If you want to learn more about this stuff, and would like me to show you how all this applies to your painting, I invite you to come to my next plein air landscape painting workshop that I will be conducting May 1 - 3, at Winslow Art Center on Bainbridge Island, WA. Please go to their website for more info and to sign up! It's a plein air workshop, so we'll be working outside, unless the weather is uncooperative, in which case we will work indoors using photos. Either way you'll get a ton of information and individual instruction. All my trade secrets are yours for the asking :-D