Sunday, April 18, 2010

Recent Pastels

While oil remains my medium of choice for its tactile properties I often use pastels and watercolors for developing ideas and sketching, such as in "Fergie" (below) of an eight week old pup.

"Fergie", 9x12", pastel on sanded paper

Unlike some instructors, I prefer to keep enrollment in my classes and workshops limited to 12 students or less for several reasons. Small classes ensure that each student receives plenty of individual attention from me during painting sessions. In addition, it allows me to work along with my students so they can watch me develop a piece to completion over a period of time. The still life's below were painted in such a way. Each took several weeks to complete in my pastel classes, not because of their complexity but rather because I work only for a few minutes at a time between making rounds with my students. This method of teaching has proven extremely valuable to students.

"Still life with Fan", 9x12", pastel on sanded paper

"Still life in Orange and Blue", 12x9", pastel on sanded paper

All images on this blog are copyrighted by SGTarr with all rights retained by the artist.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Demonstration: Studies vs. Paintings Workshop

In a recent workshop for the Great Lakes Plein Air Painters Association I demonstrated the value of preliminary studies by working out problems prior to painting a larger work from plein air and photographic references. To make this concept as realistic as possible for the students I chose to go for broke by conducting this demonstration without the usual planning prior to the demonstration. This left me open to explore any and all possibilities (good, bad, or indifferent) in front of the audience providing them a more honest view of the give and take mental and visual processes that an artist goes through. Frankly, it also left me, as an instructor, feeling more than a little vulnerable.

Six of my plein air studies showing considerable variation of subject matter were presented to the students. After discussing the merits of each, I asked the group to pick any two as the vehicles for the development of a larger studio painting. What ensued was the process of how I elected to choose, discard and rearrange the various elements of the two plein air paintings. This was of extreme interest to the students resulting in a good interchange of ideas, as well as, questions and answers. Over the years, my students have often expressed that the manipulation of subject matter for studio paintings is the single most difficult and confusing step for them.

Finally, with an idea of what should be included in the painting I began the process (see photo above) of doing composition, value and, color studies. In reality, the painting itself was almost anticlimactic. In fact, I have yet to finish it. The real value of the entire demonstration was the thought processes involved in the selection of subjects and the resulting development of various studies to support the proposed painting.

I must say, I love it when students leave a demonstration or the classroom visibly high on excitement and eager to get home and begin doing their own work. This level of enthusiasm tells me the class experience was a winner and the students gained considerable knowledge and understanding from the experience. That is, for me, what teaching is all about and why I do what I do.

My workshops are always designed around the idea of what my students are struggling with and realistic solutions to solve these problems. In other words, the focus is on the student, not on teaching my style of painting. For this reason, every workshop, demonstration and/or classroom experience for students is topically current and packed with useful information and tips.

My teaching method is never canned. This approach certainly keeps me, as an instructor, on the edge, but effectively provides students with plenty of valuable practical information they can use now, not six months, a year, five years down the road. I've never been interested in developing clones of my style. I am truly put off by the number of clones I see in every art magazine I pick up today. As an instructor, my goal has always been to encourage students in developing a working process that supports their individuality and the development of their own uniqueness of expression with the very best tools available.

Note: EASyL easels by Outdoor Essentials at

Thursday, April 8, 2010

"No Magic Formulas"

I've never considered the purpose of this blog to be tutorial. However, students in my classes often ask how to paint "things" such as water reflections and buildings. I feel this student concern is universal and therefore it might be a good idea to address it here. My usual answer to students, other than novices, is "if you have had good instruction from a qualified teacher and learned to 'see' more than likely you already know what it takes to paint these subjects. What you may not have is the confidence to put what you know into meaningful order".

First of all, I want to make it abundantly clear that contrary to popular student opinion, there are no magic formulas for painting a subject. Just like there is no perfect brush for doing an entire painting. For any instructor to suggest otherwise would be highly misleading. Representational artists who paint still life's, landscapes, figures, and/or portraits, all rely on the very same basic principles of art and painting techniques. The very same! Therefore, my answer to the questions "how does one paint water reflections with amorphous shapes", and "how to paint buildings with angular shapes" is essentially the same.

Besides basic drawing and compositional skills, artists, who work in color, have several simple but very important tools that have stood the test of time in creating great works of art. They are well placed color notes, edge treatments, and texture. The combined effect of these three elements define the impression of any subject.

The color note consists of the local color of a subject (ie: red, yellow, blue, etc.) and it's relative value (lightness/darkness), temperature (warm or cool), and intensity (saturated color vs. greyed color). Each of these elements of the color note, listed here in the order of their importance, must be correct in the various passages of a painting. If any one element is wrong the passage will not fit with its surroundings (hence the word "relative"). I tell students to check their color note(s) when something doesn't read right in their painting. Invariably one or more of the elements, value, temperature or intensity will be wrong. Corrected, the passage will then "fit" with other nearby notes.

Traditionally, edges are one of the last tools students pay attention to on their way to becoming accomplished at their craft. By way of definition, a hard edge exists where two contrasting elements meet. Conversely, soft or hard edges apply where contrast does not exist. It is the effective use of these variable edges that create the so called "poetry" in a painting. By in large, a painting should be made up of primarily soft and/or lost edges leaving the hard edges, which catch the attention of the eye, in important places such as the focal area.

And finally, texture. We know that contrast is elemental in creating interest in a painting. This is never more true than with texture. Contrast titillates the eye and textural diversity is exciting, such as: rough vs. smooth, thick vs. thin, and opaque vs. transparent.

It is not unusual to see student works that are all hard edges, all smooth surfaces, etc. Students often get so caught up in the "thing" or the immediacy of what they are doing they forget to diversify contrasts. The next time you paint, think about color notes, edges, and texture. Even a small improvement in any one of these will add up to huge gains in the overall look of your work and help in painting that building or the water reflections correctly.

The best advice I can give is to draw on what you have learned...what you know. Think about how you can apply these tools to create your subject. Remember, if there is a magic formula, it is YOU. You in combination with a few simple tools. You may be surprised at just how much you already know. Have the confidence to try without looking for easy answers. I know you can do it!