Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Why Studies vs. Paintings?

"Early Warm Up", 18 x 24", oil on linen

"Winter Cattails" (below) is a small study of last seasons intermingled grasses and cattails and is a good example of how valuable a "from life" reference can be during painting sessions in the studio. I create and keep many such references and use them frequently. This particular study gives me all I need to know of the natural angles of the stems and leaves and the transitional edges at snow level. I referred to this study often when painting "Early Warm Up" (above), a painting in progress (notice the lower left uncompleted corner). Without this from life study experience in the field I would have no knowledge or understanding for portrayal of grasses in the studio.

"Winter Cattails", 12x12" study, plein air oil on panel

Inexperienced artists are often confused over the differences between studies and paintings. To me, a painting is a performance. In other words it must express all the elements of painting that an artist has perfected at the time of the performance. Therefore, as a general rule of thumb, which makes perfect sense to me, one should not tackle elements in a painting that are unfamiliar or unknown to the artist.

Studies on the other hand, are executed as an examination, a lesson, if you will, of subject matter, light, texture, technique, etc. A study supports experimentation, the option of trying new things, perfecting a technique, or gaining experience with a process. There is a heightened sense of freedom for the artist in creating a study that is not evident in a painting where one is expected to perform.

It is this learning process that develops artistic acuity in observation, knowledge, understanding, and mastery of medium technique. These four elements must be thoroughly developed on the road to excellence. The only way I know of how to do this is to work often, study hard, and create miles and miles of studies. I tell my students to practice ninety percent of the time and perform ten percent. Those who take this advice advance their skills much faster than those who continually belabor over creating paintings.

Watch this blog for a one day workshop on "The How and Why of Studies" to be announced for Spring, 2010 at my Williamston Studio.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Silverman on Sensationalism

For a number of years the art world has been in a flux casting about trying to figure out where we should go from modernism. In reviewing Burton Silverman's exceptional website (link at right under "Websites of Interest") I noted on his "Commentary" page a section entitled, "Realism in the Century of Modernism". He succinctly describes the turmoil the art world has been in over the past 50 years and the current trend to sensationalize.

Keeping true to ones self as an artist is a truly difficult thing to do as we are bombarded by external factors every way we turn in our daily lives. TV, movies, the media, magazines, etc. all impact what we do, what we think, and how we feel. It becomes ever more difficult for artists to focus on their own internal message and to express self. Finding a quiet place within and outside of ourselves to contemplate who we are and what we have to say as artists is ultimately essential if we wish to follow our own unique individual path. I can only say, "Bravo" to Mr. Silverman for understanding this and having the foresight and courage to stay the course throughout his career. His example of individualism is clearly an ideal towards which we should all strive.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Sketching From My Car

There are times when the weather is too cold, I have too little time to set up and paint, or I'm just too tired to work on location after a hard work day. It's times like this that I set in my car and draw in comfort. I've found that good drawing paper clipped to a sketching board and Tombo pens work best for me. I like the Tombo's because they come in a variety of values in both warm and cool tones. Most often, I work with a black pen for my dark, a 50% value for my mid-tones and the white of the paper for my lights. This gives me all the information I need to record a subject. The thumbnail sketches ABOVE were done in this way after a day spent at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania.

Perils of Plein Air Painting: Where the Buffalo Roam

In an earlier "Perils of Plein Air Painting" I related my experience with a stalking bull. I'll compound that singular episode with this tale which includes a whole herd of bison. It seems I have a penchant for hoofed animals.

In the late 1990's I was privileged to go on an 18 day painting trip in the west with three artist friends that included painting in the Grand Teton N.P. We traveled west from Michigan in a relatively new Subaru loaded heavily with painting gear and very light on personal effects. We were crowded but happy as we looked forward to our grand adventure. One day, we were painting along Mormon Row in the park, a dirt road where a few abandoned historical farms are back dropped by the Teton Mountains. We'd been painting for sometime in an open area and, needing a break, I volunteered to take the car and drive approximately 5 miles back to the Visitor's Center for refreshments for everyone. This done I started back to the group only to find, as they came into view 3/4 of a mile away, a herd of about 20 free roaming buffalo headed straight for them. Realizing their peril, I gunned the motor on the car not sure if I could reach my friends before the buffalo did. Stones flew as I drove like a mad woman along that road. It should be noted here that such big animals cover a considerable distance quickly even when walking. Don't ever let their girth and short legs fool you.

I literally reached my friends just as the first cow reached the road opposite them. The gals were backed up as far as they could go against some brushy saplings and an old rickety wire fence. With the car between the bison and my friends, they piled in with arms and legs flying, leaving all our gear outside. I quickly moved the car down the road a bit giving the buffalo plenty of room.

Laughing somewhat hysterically with relief we watched the herd checking out our easels and overturned chairs. Somewhere we have a photo of a cow with her nose in my painting smelling the wet paint. Apparently finding nothing to be anxious about they left everything in good shape and slowly moved off headed for their destination, on our side of the road, a lush grassy park.

We returned to our gear, finished our paintings and packed up the car. The afternoon was early so instead of turning and heading back towards pavement, we decided to do some exploring and continued further down the road. We were to find this was an unfortunate choice.

The road ends at the last farm house next to a large wilderness area. We drove into a turn around and discovered that a second wave of bison were following us down the road. This group of about 30 bison had blocked the road from side to side. We backed up into the front yard of the abandoned farmhouse next to a tall bush and rusty windmill to await their passing.

Just then, a ranger driving a truck seemingly came from nowhere and made an attempt to ease through the herd. He wisely gave up the idea turned around and went back the way he'd come. The four of us looked at each other and said, "great!". To our dismay, the herd turned towards the farmhouse where we had taken refuge. Things were definitely not shaping up in our favor. We were cut off and totally surrounded by huge hairy beasts. If you've ever had such an experience you can appreciate how small you feel in a compact car when you are looking directly into the eyes of enormous wild beasts that could conceivably turn your car over if they decided they didn't like you. We very much wanted them to like us.

At this time, I had a cell phone conversation with my elderly parents back in Michigan. My Dad was delighted to hear about our predicament. He always did have a weird sense of what was "fun". Laughing, he said, "I hope they don't bed down to chew their cud, you might be there for a few hours". As I was the driver, I didn't dare look at the others. I was sure by this time they hated me and if looks could have done it I'd be dead. Somehow, the fault of this day was becoming solely mine.

That day I learned several things that I didn't know before. First, I developed a greater appreciation for how zoo animals must feel with people looking at them in their cages. Second, I was shocked to see a cow buffalo lift her front legs and sail over a four foot fence as easily as an agile deer. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself that an animal that big could become so easily and gracefully airborne. Obviously, a fence is no protection when buffalo are on the move.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Think Spring!

Fresh off the easel...

"Buckets of Color", 18x24", oil on canvas

The itch to paint lots of color usually hits me about this time each year and "Buckets of Color" was my 2010 winter cure. It borders on whimsy but that's OK in my book as it greatly improved my annual longing for warmer weather. I've got it out of my system and I'm good to go now for another month or two of the white stuff.

(Painted from reference photos)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Painting Oil on Paper

"Grand River: Humble Beginnings", 11x14", oil on paper

I have often asked myself why students feel compelled to perform by doing "paintings" instead of practicing which makes so much more sense if one is trying to learn. I've always felt there must be some logical reason but have been hard pressed to figure it out. In my classes I stress the need to practice ninety
(90) percent of the time and perform ten (10) percent. I'm sure I must sound like a broken record sometimes as I try to get this point across.

It occurred to me that cost might be at least part of the problem. The psychological need to justify the cost of paint and canvas, ergo, finished paintings vs. practice sketches. If this is true, then there is a solution. Paint on paper! It's cheap and certainly readily available in every household. Proper preparation on archival paper combined with correct painting procedures studies thus created may stand the test of time for permanency.


Any kind of paper may be used but it must be isolated from the oil paint or the oil will eventually rot the paper. When working this way, I personally use high quality archival watercolor paper but have also been known to create quick color workups and sketches on cardboard, mat board,Foamboard, Bristol board, copy paper, etc. Here's how.

First, for paper that buckles when wet, slightly dampen the backside with a damp sponge (do not saturate) then lay the paper, wet side down, on a Masonite panel that is some larger all the way around then the size of the paper. Tape the edges down with brown packaging tape and make sure all edges are secure. Brush a thin coat of Acrylic gesso onto the paper with a craft brush making sure that all surfaces are completely covered. Gesso may be thinned a little with water for easier application. I use a scumbling movement with a craft brush to make sure the gesso gets into the minute valleys of the paper. Allow to dry. You may recoat with a second thin coat if necessary. The paper is then ready for painting after it has dried and is smooth as a drum.

A word of caution, paper, by its very nature, is an unstable surface, in other words, it expands and contracts as it absorbs moisture from the air and as it dries. For this reason, do not paint heavy layers or your paint will eventually crack. It's best to use no more than 2-3 thin layers of paint. For my initial lay-in of darks I use a small amount of Liquin to thin the paint preserving transparency in my dark passages and encouraging quick drying of the first layer. By personal choice, artists might add color to their gesso to establish an even mid-toned support.

With this easy inexpensive method, many studies may be created for the cost of a single canvas. The low cost of paper should help everyone to practice, practice, practice. How else do we become skilled and masters of our medium?

In "Grand River: Humble Beginnings", above, I was concerned about color relationships and did this study quickly to see how various color relationships would work for a near to sunset painting. This study shows more delineation than is usual for me because it was done between classes and I had time to do a little more before folks arrived. In general, compared to a completed painting, my studies are painted quickly and simply.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"John and Kate" a Painting in Progress

Sometimes it's helpful to see how a painting has developed. I wanted to capture the sibling relationship between John and Kate as well as the sense of discovery children have when playing in shallow water. John is intent on moving boldly ahead while his sister shows her concern for him by her slightly turned head and upraised hand reaching towards him. Both poses imply the personality of these siblings.

"John and Kate" was a commissioned painting completed this past year. It was a fun painting for me to do as it brought back many wonderful childhood memories of my own and that of my children and grandchildren. Those memories helped me to relate to the children as I painted them.

To start the painting I used a warm orange based color to suggest the placement of forms. Some of this color was allowed to peak through subsequent layers of paint which helped to harmonize the flesh tones with the cool tones of vegetation and water. The overall effect was one of sparkle and freshness.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Switching to Right Brain Activity

"Where did my right brain go?"

This week I heard several of my students bemoan the fact that it's hard to gear up for a creative session when they've been totally immersed with life's problems all day or they have suffered from a creative block. I have a solution to these problems and it is to develop a quick and easy personal trigger that can be called upon as needed to switch your mind from left to right whenever you want to become creative.

As a professional artist I don't have the luxury of painting only when I am in the mood. I have to fit my painting time into the nooks and crannies surrounding my work schedule. Because art is important to me I want to maximize the time I do have to study and perform at my peak. It's essential that I come to the easel fresh and ready to paint and cannot afford to worry about my "mood" or what's happening outside the studio. How do I do that?

First and most important, I go to my studio, sit down, making myself comfortable, and then.....

1) with pen in hand I fill a sheet of paper from left to right, line by line, with words as they pop into my mind. I allow no sentence structure or punctuation. I write as fast as I can to fill the page (time about 5 minutes), or

2) work on several reverse imaging exercises to achieve mind, eye, and hand coordination (time about 10 minutes), or

3) (my favorite) view a slide show on my laptop computer of favorite paintings that I've collected. This not only activates right side thinking but also relaxes and inspires me (time about 8 min.).

My images are of photos I've taken of favorite paintings from the permanent collection of the Detroit Institute of Art (always check with a museum to make sure you can photograph their permanent collection). Take a little time to crop and coordinate the images into a pleasing sequence then hit the slide show button. I have enough images that my slide show runs for about 8 minutes. By the time it has run its course I am usually hooked and good to go. If I happen to be a hard core case on any given day then I may have to view it more than once.

Notice in all three of my triggers I am not problem solving. I shy away from activities such as sorting photographs to work from as that requires my logical brain to be running, I'm not flipping through an art book where I can get caught up in reading and analyzing (logical) the artists written information, etc. I am doing visual cuing, in a relaxed mental state, that forces the brain to switch modes.

Since I began using #3 above I have had enormous success in switching gears. No matter how dicey life gets outside the studio I can feel serene and creative in just a matter of minutes.

Dealing with a creative blocks are a bit more difficult. In short, one must go back to the basics and paint simple things. More on that later....

Monday, February 1, 2010

Perils of Plein Air Painting: a Stalking Bull

"Leelanau Vineyard", 8x10" plein air study, oil on canvas

I've been an outdoor enthusiast all of my life and in that time, as an artist, I've had the privilege of introducing many hundreds of students to painting en plein air, a French term meaning from life in the out-of-doors. Personal safety is always a consideration for artists when painting on location. Unfortunately, no matter how careful we are situations can and do happen to keep life interesting. I've certainly had my fair share of encounters with domestic and wild animals over the years. Some more interesting than others.

Two summers ago I met and received permission from the owner of a large vineyard in northern Michigan to paint anywhere I wanted on her picturesque and very hilly property as long as I had 4-wheel drive to get around. Towards the end of our conversation the woman casually mentioned, "don't go into the north pasture because there are cows there".

After driving around for sometime to familiarize myself with possible painting sites I ended up on a long up-hill farm lane next to the north field where a large herd of cows were fenced in by a single wire. The lane finally petered out so I killed the motor, stepped out of my car and continued the steep climb on foot to the top of the hill to see the view.

I was nearly to the top when I heard a grunting sound coming from the herd. Having grown up around farm animals, the hair on the back of my neck raised. I looked to my right across the thin wire that separated me from the herd and saw the cows dividing like the waters of the Red Sea as a huge bull stalked towards me not 30 feet away. Every few feet he'd hesitate and paw the earth. It was obvious he meant business and didn't want me near his cows. I desperately looked around for a place of safety only to discover that the nearest tree and my car were at least 100 yards below me. Clearly, I was in a dicey situation. I did the only thing I could do in such a situation and broke out into a cold sweat of fear as my mind raced searching for a possible out. The best I could figure was the obvious... I needed to get somewhere other than where I was fast.

If you know anything about the size of a bull in its prime, you'll know that a wire, even an electrified wire, wont stop a bull if he decides to go through it. In the short moments that my brain was calculating the distance between us and the distance to my car the behemoth arrived at the wire still snorting and pawing earth. I began to move slowly sideways in the direction of the car being cautious not to move fast and/or directly away from the bull. Believe me that trip down the hill to my car was the longest walk I've ever made. The bull, not 10 feet from me, followed my every step snorting and pawing earth all the way. With relief unequal to any word known in the English language, I finally reached the car and literally threw myself into it.

Later, when I returned to the vineyard office, I told the owner about the experience. She looked at me as though I was crazy and said, "that bull wouldn't hurt a flea!" Well, believe me when I say to you that I wont be going back any time soon to prove her wrong.

1, Feb. 2010: Morning Plein Air

The trees in our backyard were tipped with frost this morning and the sun was rising through thin clouds giving a pinkish glow to the sky. I hurried into my outdoor clothing, loaded the car with fresh canvas, paints, etc. and was off.

My usual haunts were still in shadow when I arrived at the farm so I decided to drive around the property a bit looking for other subject matter. The field study above is the result. I was especially taken by the contrasts between the russet orange in the subject tree (left center) and grasses vs. the dark purply-blue background trees. I have always had trouble trying to establish just the right color note for those background trees at this time of the morning. They seem to hover around several color notes without ever becoming identifiable with any single color.

I was pleased with the resulting sketch and finished the morning off with a short hike, hot chocolate from my thermos, and a feeling of well being. It's good to be alive on a 20 degree plus morning in Michigan.