Thursday, July 29, 2010

Beating the Positive to Death!

I had lunch the other day with several friends who are also students of art. The topic of negative and positive space came up. Their general agreement was that their focus gets caught up on the positive and that they often forget about negative shapes. My comment to that was, " of my frustrations as a teacher is seeing students ignore the negative while beating the positive to death". Well, this made everyone laugh and they all agreed that this had to be the subject of my next post.

"The Road to Somewhere", 18x14", oil on canvas
by Sharon Griffes Tarr, copyright 2009

First, let's assume that everyone, at least intellectually, understands the difference between negative and positive shapes in art, ie: the horse, the tree, the building, etc. vs. the negative space that surrounds these shapes. Due to the way we have been trained to see since childhood, we humans naturally focus on positive shapes. This is our nature. This is also where unskilled painters get into trouble. Because they see only the positive they will continue to erase, redraw (repaint), erase, redraw (repaint), erase, redraw (repaint), or incorporate fussy fussy, dibby dabbing, and mindless pencil marks or brush work to correct a positive shape until it is beaten into submission. Unless reminded they will never look at the negative as a moderating or correcting tool.

There are certain truths in art that are, unto themselves, self evident. This is one of them... if a negative shape is not correct, the positive shape next to it will also be wrong. It cannot be otherwise. So, for seasoned artists, when a positive seems wrong the first thing they do is look at the negative space(s) and correct the shape.

James Reynolds is an American icon of western art following in the footsteps of Remington and Russell. Formerly a Hollywood screen illustrator and later fine artist extraordinaire, Reynolds passed away this past year. What I find interesting about his beautiful oils are the small passages throughout his paintings that show slightly altered color shapes and brush strokes in negative passages that clearly demonstrate his attention to correcting and enhancing positive shapes. His style of work makes it easy to find these alterations. His positive shapes remain clean, crisp and fluidly beautiful by comparison because they are not beaten to death. His adjustments are most often made in the negative. His negative shapes are as interesting as his positive shapes. Reynolds work is well worth studying, if no other reason, for this one aspect alone, simply because his brushwork is so readable. However, I would hope anyone taking the time to study his work would also recognize his phenomenal command of draftsmanship, sense of color and composition. He was clearly a master of his craft and should be studied seriously.

In "Road to Somewhere", above, I spent as much time if not more creating interesting negatives. My positive shapes are the small hills on both sides of the road and the road itself. All the remaining shapes including the fields, roadside grasses and sky are subordinate or negative. However, note how interesting each of these shapes are. They are quite clearly, part of the whole and what creates the "finished" quality and unity in the painting. Without them, this painting would have very little impact. The are effectively important to the overall look of this work.

So, the next time you find yourself struggling with your subject, take a moment and look at the negative space around it. You just might improve that tree or building by creating a better negative.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Summer on Mackinac Island

Each summer I am blessed to spend time on Mackinac Island visiting my family at their summer cottage. This year was no exception. I love being there and due to the family and home-style experience may view the Island a bit differently than casual visitors. With time, the Island offers so much more than hasty bicycle rides and touristy shops. For me the family situation is the best.

Some say my sister, Barb, and I look alike. Actually, in looks, I take after our Mom and she takes after our Dad. But, I guess there is a family resemblance. I often remind her though that I'm the better 1/2 of the two of us. She claims I'm the spoiled one and she's the favorite. We have a good time razzing each other and know it's all in good fun. I'm shown here relaxing one afternoon at the Grand Hotel.

Family is what makes Mackinac Island special to me and sharing time with my sister, Barb, IS the best fun I know as we are usually only able to see each other once or twice a year. We always have a lot of catching up to do. I took this picture of her and she took the one of me above. Not too bad for a couple of amatures.

"Sophie" was a new addition to the Island this year and she decided that "Aunt Sharon" was OK! We became great pals. Sophie has a great and gentle personality with just a tad bit of "naughty" to make life interesting for her humans. She is not allowed to be in the chairs....get my drift on naughty? How could anyone possibly get upset though with a face like that to discipline?

Painting with friends is always a joy for a plein air painter. This summer I met several new artist friends and had a great time sharing this beautiful garden with them. Other times, I sketched local scenes with my watercolor sketching set-up or painted with oils in the side yard of the cottage.

Early morning adventurer's find all kinds of fun things to photograph and paint. I fully believe that getting up early to experience the awakening of the Island is the best part of each day. For instance, it's always a treat to stop by the horse barns just up the hill from the Grand Hotel and watch the hustle and bustle of horses being fed, washed, hitched to surreys and wagons for their work day. Animal lovers can be assured, the horses are well taken care of as they are "king" on the Island where no motor vehicles other than emergency services are allowed. A stroll down Main Street at dawn when the street lights are still on is lovely. Crews in bright yellow slickers and boots hose down the streets and they and the lights flicker their reflections on the wet pavement. The island is still, hushed like, and yet pockets of "busy" of a different nature from the daytime crowds make it intriguing. And...finally at 8 a.m. the first boats of the day bring dock workers and others from Mackinac City and St. Ignace, along with early visitors, to begin the tourist day.

Boats from the annual Bayview Yacht Club's Port Huron to Mackinac race arrived at the harbor a couple of days before I left for home. I missed the Chicago to Mackinac race this year. The Island virtually hops with excitement when the crews arrive and there is plenty of partying and fun for all....

...and, sometimes if we're lucky, even fireworks to end the day.

Be sure to visit Marcia's new extensive Mackinac Island website: to see all there is to do and enjoy.

Friday, July 2, 2010

More on Sketching with Watercolor

Sorry! This workshop is full. A wait-list for a possible repeat class in late summer, early fall is availabe. Go to "Contact" at to be included.

I've had several students requesting a photo of the color sketching system I use. Above is a photo showing the field watercolor book, my water supply which is a bottle that originally held seasonings (the cap is what I dip my brush into), one of two field boxes (palettes) that I use and my trusty Cheap Joe's Dream Catcher #10 brush...couldn't do it without this brush. All supplies are available at Cheap Joe's Art Supplies at

See examples of field sketching with this system below in the next post.