Question: How do I simplify my painting and not get distracted trying to include every detail I see?
Answer: Hold on to that initial spark.
My friends and family have been swept into the recent fad of tidying. They are tidying their clothing, their freezers, their toy car collections. By tidying, mostly they mean eliminating. They are slowly purging through their possessions, asking each object as they go, “Do you bring me joy?” Often, the answer is no, so out goes that shirt, that frozen meatloaf, that broken plastic car.
I am sort of like that when I compose my paintings. I wander through the landscape until something strikes me, something catches my attention and brings a spark of what I might call joy. Much of the remaining process is about holding on to that initial spark. Anything that detracts from the feeling that I hope to convey gets eliminated.
Once I know clearly what I want the painting to be about, I do several pencil sketches to finalize my composition. The concept and the composition are what will make or break the painting, so it is better to invest the time into really understanding what I am aiming for than to launch haphazardly into a vague idea.
My sketches are just enough to cement an idea in my mind. They are scrawled, like my handwriting, and usually illegible to anyone besides myself. I first draw a rectangle, then inside the rectangle I arrange and rearrange the main elements of my composition until I feel my idea is visually interesting. Usually I break down a scene into three to five elements, and when I arrange these elements I play a game with myself…the rules of this game are that no spaces should be the same, no shapes should have the same volume, and each value should be distinct.
This process helps me be more objective about what I am composing; many times after sketching for a while I decide that whatever struck me initially about the scene does not translate well into a composition. Then I move on until I hopefully find something else that does translate well.
All of this so far has been about my process working outdoors. My studio paintings unfold in a similar way and are often based on the smaller paintings I have completed on location. Usually I combine thoughts from several of these small paintings when I am shaping ideas for my larger compositions.
I think of my paintings as visual poems, and much of that has to do with simplifying, pairing down an image to its essence so as to best convey emotion and to allow viewers to step into it with their imaginations unfurled. A beautifully, thoughtfully composed poem carries depth and life in ways that abundantly descriptive prose cannot; we are built to love elements of mystery that draw us beyond what we can see or describe. Brevity often allows the space that our imaginations need in order to step in and engage.
The idea of simplicity has become central not only in my approach to art, but also to the rest of life. Some of the most influential advice I have received was from one of my mentors, Jay Moore, when he told me to live simply and focus on relationships. Simplifying creates space for the pursuit of what makes life meaningful and fills us with that spark of joy.
To learn more about David and see his portfolio of work CLICK HERE.
Question: Is there a point where your painting takes on a life of its own? Do you respond more to what you see happening in the painting or what you see happening in the model or photo reference?
I begin each piece with a graphite gesture drawing. Then, I refine the figure, or figures, with darker marks in graphite until I feel like there is a good “frame work.” It’s at this point that the painting really begins to take on a life of its own because I respond more to the painting or reference. It starts slowly; mark by mark. I’m never after a likeness or anything. The model is literally a reference. As the painting evolves I’m responding more to the piece itself.
The really tough part, for me, about this stage is not relying on a “bag of tricks” per se. That is, not recreating paintings I’ve done in the past using the same technique over and over. I really try to see the model and the piece abstractly by first responding to the composition. Each mark, each direction of a brushstroke is composition. I try to keep all of those formal aspects in mind: balance, unity with variety, directional thrust, etc. I also think a lot about opposites such as line vs. tone, hard edge vs. soft edge and so on. For me, it seems like a lot of interest in painting lies in the dialogue created between opposites in formal qualities.
Imprint No 74, 22×15, Oil on Wood
Imprint No 40, 8×10, Mixed Media on Wood
Question 2. Strong drawing skills are so critical when working with figures, how do you find a balance between suggesting enough form and including elements of abstraction? Then how do you determine when to stop? Is it intuitive or calculated or a bit of both?
Imprint No 38, Mixed Media on Paper
Imprint No 37, Mixed Media on Paper
Imprint No 32, Mixed Media on Paper
Strong drawing skills are critical when working figuratively but the trick is to try and forget them after a certain point. I put myself in the viewer’s shoes. I paint standing up so I constantly view the painting up close and at a distance. When I walk away from the painting, I pause for a moment and then turn around to look at it. I feel where my eyes move around the piece and how quickly or slowly. I think that’s the real energy in a painting; where and how your eyes move around. The way to adjust that movement is with variations in value contrast, passive areas vs. active areas, linear passages juxtaposed against tonal passages and so on. Seeing things abstractly and not so literally helps. If there is too much weight at the bottom of a piece, I may add a bit more information around the eye of the subject. I try not to think of anything as detail or lack of; it’s all just information…fodder for making a picture.
Sometimes a painting can come out looking a bit more representational and sometimes, especially lately, a piece comes out a bit more abstract. It really depends on what it is I’m trying to convey about the subject. Knowing that assists in the abstraction, exaggeration and emphasis of form and subject.
There are many ways to determine when to stop or when a piece is finished. Lately, I’m trying to complete a painting with as little information as possible. It’s fascinating how little information it takes to engage the viewer. I think there is a lot of power in restraint. For the most part, I rely on a mix of intuition and calculation to know when to stop. However, I believe that “intuition” is just calculation that we haven’t realized yet.
John Wentz is a contemporary painter whose process resides in an area between rigid technicality and honest expression. To learn more about John and his work. please visit his website.
Question: What’s the best way to improve my drawing skills?
First, let’s touch on why drawing matters, then cover simple ideas on how to improve our drawing skills.
The better you draw, the better you will paint. When you touch paintbrush to paper or canvas, you are in fact drawing (putting lines and marks in the correct places to replicate the shapes and forms in a subject matter, or in your mind’s eye).
Drawing is to a painter what rhythm is to a musician. Imagine a drummer with poor rhythm. Or worse, does not notice that he has poor rhythm. This is similar to a plein air or studio painter who not does not draw proficiently, and does not notice the discrepancies between a subject matter and her drawing of that subject matter. In both examples, fundamental skills must first be developed so that these artists can better express themselves.
In my experience as an artist and teacher, I have learned that drawing is really a two-pronged skill set: (1) the skill of putting lines and marks in the correct places; and, (2) the awareness to step back and notice when lines and marks are not in the correct places.
The good news is that this skill and awareness is not the outcome of natural-born talent, but of practice. Proper practice alone will result in the skills and awareness needed to draw anything you desire with confidence.
So, what constitutes proper practice? Take some time each day to pick up a pencil and concentrate solely on the act of drawing. As you draw, keep the following seven ideas in mind:
Fifteen Minutes Per Day, No Matter What
The key to improvement is doing it daily. Not every other day, or every week, but every day, no matter what. Commit to doing this for the next 30 days. You’ll be surprised at how much you can improve by making this one commitment. Set the timer on your phone for 15 minutes, and do nothing but draw. Uninterrupted, focused time is what is needed to gain the benefits.
You Don’t Need to Finish
Use this time to work on accuracy. Don’t worry about completing a picture. Even if you draw only three shapes in 15 minutes, if those shapes have been correctly drawn, then your time has been used wisely.
Take It Easy
Draw simple subjects as you practice. Crawl, walk, and then run (it doesn’t work the other way around). Forget about drawing architecture in three-point perspective. Draw a coffee mug in front of you. Or, a lemon slice. The salt shaker on the table. A leaf. Your big toe. Anything that’s simple. By drawing simple subjects, you clear away unnecessary difficulties so that you can focus solely on proportions, angles, and the relationships between different shapes horizontally and vertically.
Check Your Work
Use your smart phone. Snap a photograph of your subject and your drawing of the subject. Then, scroll back and forth (on your phone) between the two photographs. Notice the discrepancies, of which there might be many. Don’t criticize. Learn. What are your tendencies? Do you draw objects too thin? Too short? Are your angles off? All of the above? (If so, next time choose a simpler subject.) Take a minute or two with each drawing to check your efforts. You can only improve your results when you know where you’re off.
Within a week or two, pulling out your sketchbook should get easier. If it doesn’t, or the thought of drawing doesn’t generate a feeling of enthusiasm within you, take notice. It’s at this moment in the practice that many people drop the ball and stop drawing.
The problem for many of us is that we feel the need to produce a master artwork each time. This is not a good strategy (it leads to feelings of pressure when you pick up a pencil). Instead, approach drawing practice the way a pianist plays the scales on a piano. Simply lose yourself in the moment as you see, draw, make errors, and learn from them. Accept that improving your drawing skills is a learning process that should take time. Trust that your skills (as well as your enjoyment of the craft) will improve with consistent effort.
And, do not share your drawings with anyone. This daily practice is for your eyes only.
What Doesn’t Matter
How quickly you draw doesn’t matter. Expect to work slowly as you practice. Speed comes after proficiency. How “loose” your drawings look doesn’t matter either. When a beginner aims for “looseness” in his or her drawings, the results are often not loose, but sloppy in appearance. Focus on accuracy only.
What Does Matter
Notice what’s happening inside your own mind as you draw. Notice that with consistent practice, your eye becomes ever more sensitive. You’re developing a sensitivity to proportions, to angles, to how different shapes relate to one another vertically and horizontally, and so on. With daily drawing, you become more skilled at making these observations and accurately recording them in the pages of your sketchbook. And eventually, you can apply this skill and awareness when you pick up a paint brush.
Mastery of drawing will not occur in 30 days. But, the habit of drawing, that is necessary for mastery, can be developed applying these ideas. With each passing month, drawing will become more comfortable, and more fun. After the first month, you may decide to increase your daily drawing time. The more time you put in, the better you will get.
When you develop a skill for accurate drawing, painting becomes much easier. Like a skilled musician, you will find yourself with a solid foundation, from which you can more easily compose, play, improvise, and get lost in the flow of making beautiful, expressive art.
Richard E. Scott is an artist, architectural illustrator, and author of “Sketching – from Square One to Trafalgar Square” (a user-friendly guide to the very best lessons Richard has learned over a lifetime of daily drawing). Available at www.amazon.com and www.sketchingfromsquareone.com (go here for the best rates on international shipping).
Question: Could you break down the elements for creating a successful landscape?
Anatomy of a Landscape Painting
I’d like to do a little analysis on some conscious decisions that I made along the way on a recent landscape painting that I did. The ideas I’m sharing may not be new to you, but hopefully they will serve as a reminder to be mindful of the “basics” no matter whether you’re a beginner or a much more experienced painter.
The painting, Back on the Road, is a studio piece, and it is entirely invented. I have done similar scenes on location so I had a very clear idea of the kind of mood I wanted and what I needed to do to achieve it.
The design is not particularly innovative or unique. I have the horizon splitting the canvas near the middle, a road taking the viewer into the picture, the big tree just off center. These are all common design elements and would be pretty boring if we didn’t do something to alleviate the predictability.
You’ve all heard this good advice; “Don’t put the horizon right in the middle.” Why not? because it’s boring to have the canvas split in two equal halves. I agree. So why not just make them unequal by giving a lot more visual weight to one half. Sure the horizon may go right across the middle, but all the dark masses, textures, colors, brush activity, perspective, man-made objects are on one half, and the sky as the other half serves as a big passive area, with a more subdued range of values, colors, etc. That makes the two halves not equal. Far from it. If you make sure that the visual impact of the two halves are unequal, having the horizon right across the middle is a non-issue, in my book.
The road leading the viewer into the picture is a common device, too. In order to make it more interesting, I made road curve and also go up and down small hills. Every time the road turns or the incline changes, I had to plot a new vanishing point. So the road alone has at least five–may be six–vanishing points. Tedious? Yes. Basic? Yes. Worth the effort? Yes!
The big tree is near the center, but just a little off to the right. That is a very basic design decision. However, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with having your focal point in the center, as long as it looks absolutely intentional and not because you forgot to think about it.
Again, how you place the rest of the visual elements to create an interesting arrangement becomes critical.
But don’t forget; just because the focal point can be in the center doesn’t necessarily mean it should be. If moving the focal point off-center allows you to improve the design, and allows you to make your statement more clearly or efficiently, by all means, don’t leave it in the middle!
OK, so the big tree is my focal element. I spent a lot of time shaping that thing so that it had a good, strong silhouette. But a strong shape doesn’t by itself make it a focal point. It needs contrast! I always think in terms of value contrasts first, so I made sure I had unmistakable value contrast at my focal point. You can see the sky behind the dark foliage is lighter than the areas flanking it. In this way, I consciously used maximum value contrast, strong silhouette, (relatively) sharp edges, and selective color (more intense yellows and oranges in this area, only), and detail (the silhouette of the foliage has much smaller shapes and calligraphic interest than any other tree) all to support my main focal point.
Colors in the Sky
If you take a closer look at the sky, you can see the variations in color and value. From the lightest apricot color behind the big tree, to the shadow colors (5) and (6), there are several steps from lightest to darkest.
Also consciously modulated are the intensity of these variations. I put the highest chroma at (1), and made sure the others didn’t outshine that color.
I pushed the color toward red at (3) and (4). To do this, I added Cadmium Red and Alizarin to the mix. Which makes the color redder, but since these reds are so intense, it was necessary to also knock the saturation down a notch by adding a tiny bit of blue as well.
It does looks like many hues are represented; yellow, yellow orange, orange… all the way to a blueish gray in some of the shadow areas of the clouds. But as you know, colors are relative. What appears violet in this context may surprise you when taken out of context.
The two shadow colors may look violet in the picture, but if I had just mixed red and blue on the palette and stuck it on, it would be completely out of harmony, sticking out like a tuba in a string quartet.
So how do you get these subtle colors? Just as I did with the reddish variations, I mixed a violet (probably made from ultramarine, ivory black, cad red, alizarin and white) into the apricot pile, a tiny amount at a time. I kept checking the value and chroma and fine tuned it until I had what I wanted. Mixing violet into a puddle of peachy color of course gave me a muddy gray, but that’s just what I needed.
So as you can see, there is a pretty good range of colors and values in the sky, and each of these variations are used purposefully, whether to highlight the focal area, or to show that the form has a shadow side, or to provide a transition between light and shadow.
Forms in the Sky
Now let’s look at forms in the sky. Because these cloud masses are dense, the light hitting them reveals forms, much like solid objects. By imagining where the clumps are forming, we can decide where light and shadow patterns go. Since the light is coming from the right (see the cast shadows of the telephone poles?) the right side of any “clump” would be lit, and the left side and the bottom of the same cloud mass would be in shadow.
I tried to break up the forms a little bit, to make it more fluffy and organic, but the form principle is intact. As for edges, where you would expect to see a form shadow edge–that is, where the form turns away from the light into the shadow, I used softer edges because there is a transition from light to shadow. This includes forms turning under.
See, it’s not so different from painting simple spheres.
Where the lit edge shows up against a darker cloud, the edges are sharper. However, because we are talking about cloud masses, even the sharper edges aren’t razor sharp; they look sharper just in comparison to the softer turning edges. It’s all relative.
Notice the sharpest edge in the clouds are used near the focal area. Another device to bring the eye there.
The distant hills are more or less a darker version of the violet, with a slight increase in the chroma. I’m playing up the atmosphere by completely ignoring the local color here. The rule is, the more atmospheric effect you have, the less relevant the local color becomes.
Things like hills way in the distance become just variations of the atmosphere because essentially, what we are seeing is the veil created by the particulate matter in the air between us and the hills, lit by the sun and/or the ambient light of the sky. We’re essentially painting the color of the veil, not the hills behind it.
So the atmospheric perspective used effectively will create the illusion of depth. This is very useful in a pure landscape painting where there are no man-made objects to give us linear perspective. But often if you look, you can find elements in a landscape which you can exploit to bring in some linear perspective.
In my painting, I have the road, which is an obvious thing since it’s man-made and we understand it as parallel lines going towards a vanishing point. I also used things like edges of fields, how telephone poles and trees diminish in size systematically. As this was an invented landscape, things like the edges of fields are made up elements specifically to show linear perspective. The view makes perfect sense without them but including them helps to create a sense of vast distances.
Perhaps the least obvious, but just as important, are somewhat random-looking strokes on the ground plane that conform to the linear perspective by pointing to a vanishing point. Especially when you have a foreground that doesn’t have much in it, it can be difficult to make it look like it’s level ground (or inclined, if that’s what you’re trying to depict). In some cases, the up and down strokes used to describe grass in the foreground end up making the entire foreground vertical, like a face of a cliff. Strokes that suggest a vanishing point will not only help the ground lie flat, but it will contribute to the sense of depth.
We’ve been talking about some of the things that go into creating a more complex, believable visual environment, but not all the tools are about adding complexity. Some are about editing out the unnecessary elements. Simplifying the design strengthens the impact and one of the most useful tools to move in that direction is to combine shapes by losing edges between them.
In my painting, many of the dark tree masses connect, creating fewer shapes rather than a whole bunch of little tree shapes. Our eye doesn’t have a problem perceiving the trees as we intend them to be, even if the combined mass look more like blobs and strips. The context informs the viewer what these abstract shapes are, so we don’t need to give them unnecessary information by painting each individual tree, branch and leaf.
The shapes being connected don’t necessarily need to be same types of objects, like tree and another tree; you can connect tree and grass, grass and barn, shadow on the side of the barn to the shadow cast on the ground… any two shapes with similar value can be connected.
Sometimes, the shapes need to be separated, even if they’re similar in value. It all depends on whether losing the edge there strengthens or confuses the image. You want your statement to be clear, but if connecting certain shapes creates a silhouette of a poodle (or whatever) that completely misleads the viewer, then may be you want to avoid that.
OK, that’s about all I wanted to say about this painting. If you are a beginner and found this information overwhelming, let me tell you that I’ve been there, I know, and so has every great painter. They’ve all had to learn the basics, one canvas at a time. It just takes lots of practice. If you practice with awareness of what it is you want to achieve with each painting, you will improve at a much, much quicker pace than if you just mindlessly go through the motions. Hopefully, this post has given you some ideas about strategies in making more effective landscape paintings!
To learn more about Terry Miura and his work, please visit his website.
Question: Going beyond representational figure painting to achieve a personal view. How much does your process, including the layering playing into that?
Since I began working this way several years ago, I can safely say now that
my process is one third of the equation. It starts with the initial inspiration,
be it the model or the composition, and continues with my response to her.
Then the true dialogue begins with the actual paint; building upon this
structural start and surrendering to it in many ways. ‘Surrender’ being a
place of discernment, of active looking in present time, instead of future
hoped for result. It takes a fair amount of courage.
The layers have taken on the role of referencing life, in a way. Each one has something different to add to the whole, just as life has many experiences
that make us who we are. I have learned to respect each layer of painting to do just that, contributing something to the depth of the piece, primarily because of the element of time inherent in each layer.
When I work alla prima, the focus is about speed, accuracy and putting my foundational experience to use. This too is valuable. However, combining those skills with a multi-layered piece brings a new awareness for me, a greater focus than I ever thought possible. It gives me time to become objective. To see the marks as an integral part of the process, yet separate from my mind’s control. There is time to turn the piece this way and that. To pick up a new tool and manipulate a mark. Time to step away, come back with fresh eyes and perhaps reinvent its course.
This process is far from linear. Each layer can look completely different
from the previous, completely different from my starting point. The image
often comes and goes. The environment is undefined. I will often spend
hours building the likeness, only to destroy it at another stage because it
seems contrived and too controlled. Often times, I don’t know what I am
doing, thinking I should have become someone’s terrible secretary instead.
Those moments of doubt are always there. Something I never expected after
all these years of painting, but I’ve learned to appreciate them. I’ve learned
to trust them to take me further along a new more interesting road. One not
necessarily based on experience.
Emotions become encrusted in each painting and I can’t help but think they
need to be. How do I remove them after all? Humans are emotional. If one
day I am pissed off at how it’s going and slash my way around the canvas,
why not keep that and have it be the starting point on a new day, where
perhaps the anger has dissipated into compassion?
It can be a very personal experience, at its best. 20 people can paint the same model, take up the same tools, methods, colors, even words to describe what is unfolding…and yet- if they are true to themselves first- they will all be unique expressions.
This is the beauty of all art really. Working indirectly simply allows us the
time to change more often in a single piece. To allow our human touch to
tangibly transform our vision to more than we ever expected it to. If we let
Question: How do you approach painting nocturnes and not arrive home with a bad painting?
There are a lot of subjects I’m interested in, but not all of them are easy when it gets down to it, like posing a model, or waking up early for a sunrise. Plein air nocturnes are difficult to get motivated for because it’s at a time of day I’d much rather be sinking into the couch. All of my nocturnes have come with some element of struggle, so that has to be part of the experience for me. It might explain some of the “bad paintings” as you put it.
The start is always the hardest part, but there’s a meditative mood to the night. Once I have a piece going, nocturne painting becomes one of my favorite experiences.
Here are a few of the basics when it comes to setting up and painting a nocturne.
Good equipment is obviously important, especially the lighting. I used to clip flexible book lights to my canvas and palette, which was simple and cheap. Recently I’ve upgraded to a Revelite, which distributes the light more evenly. The Revelite also allows you to dim the lights to your pleasure. One warning though: I’ve found you can easily over-illuminate your canvas. A dim light is better, because you can see the value separation more truthfully.
Because there is typically one main light source in a nocturne scene, you will observe a tonal, or monotone, key. One of the biggest hangups I’ve noticed with beginning nocturne painters is they color their piece as if they were painting a daytime scene. The alternating light sources of sun and blue sky makes a myriad of color vibrations in the daytime that are significantly missing from most nocturne scenes. For this reason, I practice color control, which means, I keep a limited color palette for the scene. Below are some examples.
The first scene, entitled “South and Carroll,” was under complete influence of two or three incandescent streetlights. This gave a very warm, or orange, tone to the whole painting. Instead of pushing any of the cool colors in the sky and shadows, I made sure they were strongly influenced by the warm colors I was mixing into everything else, because the shadows had no significant light source.
The second scene, called “Elkhorn Avenue,” was strongly influenced by the dusky cool sky light. The colors I chose for the shapes influenced by that light were limited to give it a more monotone effect. Also, knowing that I wanted to emphasize the warm points of light given off by the city, I made sure to grey the cool colors surrounding them.
The third scene, called “Corridor,” has a more divided concept. I was struck by how the brilliant, warm section of town was framed in by its surroundings. To accomplish this piece I literally divided the composition and divided the light sources as well. The diagram shows how you can see a similar temperature and color brought about by the two distinct types of light sources.
Because of the various isolated points of light in a nocturne, composing is trickier. In the daytime, it’s easier to see compositional shapes connecting with one another, but at night they appear more isolated. Finding a scene with midtone shapes that can connect the lit areas helps.
In the scene below, called “Cellar Door,” I demonstrate the movement of the eye, and how the midtones play a role in directing the eye to the brighter shapes. This is a large painting (24×30) created on location in a basement at a local resort. No photo of the scene would do it justice.
Going the extra mile
Beyond the unique considerations that a nocturne requires, I like to take my paintings a step further. One of the exciting things to study at night is the effect of glow around a light source and the colors that vibrate around it.
In this painting, “Oakes Street,” I looked carefully into and around the street light and the neon sign. It would be easy to be formulaic as often as I’ve painted things like this, but for this one I took my time. It was my hope that the painting would look like it had an internal light source. I’ve included details of those areas, so you can see the color treatment around the lights.
Get on out there and give it a try. Don’t worry about the failures. Simplify your colors, get a good composition going and go the extra mile!
We usually do a nocturne a day in my workshops, so check out the schedule.
John P. Lasater IV developed a love for art working as a designer and illustrator for a division of Hallmark Cards.
John now paints full time, both from his studio in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, and on the road painting “en plein air.” He also teaches national workshops. John’s honors include many Best of Show or First Place awards in national outdoor painting events, an Award of Excellence from the Oil Painters of America national exhibition, Artist in Residency’s, dozens of mentions in art magazines and feature articles in Southwest Art and Plein Air Magazine. He also served as a faculty member for the 2015 Plein Air Convention put on by Plein Air Magazine.
Question: I’ve never painted a themed series before and I’d like to try, what should I keep in mind before I begin?
Starting a series is more of a self-imposed exercise – for me personally, I like and need direction to keep me painting. Choosing a series of sorts revs me up. I start by browsing through the multitudes of photos I’ve taken through the years, picking out what is relevant, then narrowing it down to what I desire to paint. It makes it fun, and I need fun.
My most-current series ArtistZ has been a great learning experience. I started by making a list of my favorite painters from A to Z, and when I had several for a letter, I dove into learning more about each artist and finding ‘the one’ image that I loved most. With a few letters, I had no idea who to choose, like Q or X, so I spent a good amount of time researching artists I’d never heard of.
My ongoing series BUST-ED came about when I was browsing through a free app called Arrested. The faces inspired me to paint a subject that I really never had. It was a learning experience in that I had to transform a drab, nearly-colorless photo into something more vivid, which lead to experimenting with different color grounds. I’m still working on more as I have the time, and it’s just a great exercise in general.
I did a series titled ‘ATL to NYC & Back’ from a road trip taken a few years back. I particularly loved working on that series because it included landscapes and city scenes, a travel diary of sorts translated into a visual collection – and much of the same challenge as the BUST-ED series, to take a drab, quick reference photo and transform it into a painting.
My selection process for an image to paint generally is finding a photo that stirs something inside of me. I can pass by a photo for months or years and pay no attention, but one day it’ll speak to me. Sometimes I see another artist’s painting and see something I’ve never seen before in the style or subject and go back and find a photo that I can work with in a way I dismissed before. Photos don’t have to be great to achieve a good painting. I have to remember, I’m painting a painting, not a photo. The goal is to find the right composition, the part of the shot that interested me in the first place and embellish on that. I think it’s all about ‘seeing’ the world in a more colorful, rich way.
An example of my original photo of the finished paintings above –
I try hard to balance freehand painting with no pre-sketching or measuring to keep loose and exercise that skill – versus being more precise with the composition and sketching the outline before I begin painting. Take for instance, the BUST-ED portraits – I never sketch before I paint, I just jump right in and let it happen. Landscapes or still life are usually done the same way. I love to paint that way.
For the larger pieces, those that involve more details, I will carefully map out the areas first. I have a habit of starting all paintings start from the top left and finishing at the bottom right – it keeps it clean and smudge-free.
Most paintings are done in a long day, some more complicated are done in several days. I like to start a painting and finish before I start another one. My span of attention is short, I need to keep working when I’m interested in that image or I’ll abandon it all together. I’ve done that maybe three times in ten years, but eventually I went back and finished those pieces. Whatever I’m avid about on any given day is what I paint.
In all the series I’ve done, with an exception of BUST-ED, I’ve mapped out the series from beginning to end with my photos. That gives me the direction I long for, with a goal in mind. Knowing when a painting is done is a whole other thing. I’ve finished many and wiped the whole panel clean because it wasn’t what I envisioned or it was just boring. Any painter knows the peril of over-working a painting, that’s the tough part. I try very hard to have a balance of loose and slightly tight if it lends itself to the subject. I do a good bit of pre-planning with my image, so there’s rarely reworking the composition or color choices, which makes it easier to know when it’s done.
Don’t dismiss painting from photos, and of course, use your own photos unless you have permission to use someone elses. Paint what you are interested in, explore painting what you’re not experienced with and always hone your drawing skills whenever you can.
To see more of Karin’s inspiring works, please visit her website.
Question: What are the key elements in making a strong still life painting?
It’s important to have a strong concept of what you want to paint before you lay the first brush stroke down. Many people feel that this means that there has to be some inner, deep, meaning to a painting that only a docent can explain to the viewer.
Although this is one concept, it’s not the only one. Many times a painting can be just about a memory that you cherish, a favorite vase, or it can be as simple as your favorite rose is blooming and you want to capture it. Having a strong concept also means planning a strategy for your painting. Do you want to have a very dramatic painting with a dark background and a lot of color or do you want to paint something ethereal and high key. Is this painting going to be a horizontal or a vertical? Do you want a lot of negative space so that the few elements in the painting take on a strong importance or do you want to fill up the space with positive shapes?
Example: painting that has little negative space. The elements
take up most of the canvas.
Example: painting that has more negative area than positive. This makes the main element have great importance. This painting has a “Z” shape composition.
Value is King. Being able to recognize the correct value is a process that is learned by squinting. When I teach, many students judge the shadow value way too light. It’s because we are drawn to the light and when we look at the shadow value with our eyes wide open the light area affects our perception of how dark the shadow is. Squinting diminishes the amount of light that enters our eyes and is transferred to our brain. This enables us to more accurately judge the values.
Example: painting with values connected. Notice how the cast shadows of the apples connect to the value of the vase. Notice how the majority of the lights are connected in the upper half of the painting.
Example: color version of that painting
If value is king then temperature is queen and in my opinion just as important as value. Students learn to paint something with a value range but seldom in my experience do teachers explain the important of temperature change. Where there is light, there is temperature change. This is what separates an average painting from an incredible painting. Nature follows laws of light that say when there is a warm light, there will be cool shadows and where there is cool light there will be warm shadows. It is often mistaken that you change planes with a value change when it can be more effective to change plans with a temperature change. I set up most of my still life’s with a 5500K light. This is a cool light, which is considered to approximate the temperature of a North Light window where the blue sky influences the light. When painting outdoors at sunrise or sunset, you will have a very warm light and cool shadows. As students we learn that Yellow, Orange and Red are warm and Blue, Green and Violet are cool. What you need to learn is that a greenish yellow will be warm next to a green but it is cool next to an orange. All colors/value are relative to what they are next too.
Example: warm and cool tones in a painting.
4. Composition and Connectivity
A powerful painting will have a strong connectivity through out the composition.What this means is that there will be a lyrical line that draws you from one element to the next instead of hop skipping and jumping all over the canvas randomly. Just as a music conductor stands before the orchestra telling the musicians where to increase their volume creating a crescendo and when to soften the tone so we listen harder, you are the conductor of this painting. You need to strongly say where an area will be exciting and where an area will be quite. A strong composition will follow shapes such as a “L” “S” “T” “V” and “C”. These shapes can either be drawn backwards, sideways etc to create the line that you want the viewer to follow.
Example: painting with good harmony and “S” shape composition.
We are so accustomed to painting an element by thinking about that element as what it is. Often students paint an eye by thinking of what we think an eye looks like instead of just seeing that eye as shapes of light and dark, warm and cool, organic or abstract. Seeing things in the abstract puts you in the right side of your brain and you’ll be better able to draw the shape more accurately. When setting up my still life I am looking at shapes. I want a variety of shapes from large masses, medium masses and smaller masses. I look at my negative shapes to see that they are interesting and not repetitive. Also look at the positive shapes and determine the same thing. The key to shapes is having variety. Too much repetition is boring and static.
6. Texture and edges
A good still life will have a variety of textures and edges in the paint application. If everything is painted with similar strokes and blended all the same and all your edges are hard then you’ve created monotony. Have areas that are thin and areas that are thicker to create excitement. Great paintings will have a variety of edges. Some will be lost and some will be found. Some will be hard and some will be soft. If you want to draw someone’s attention to a certain area, which will be the focal point, then have more exciting, thicker brushwork and harder edges to that area. If you want an area to be quiet, then have quiet, thin brushwork with softer edges. Again, the key word here is variety.
Example: painting with a variety of edges and an “L” shape composition.
There should be a harmony throughout your painting, A similarity of color relationships. When you sing a song or play one on a piano, you establish the key in which you will sing or play. We all can hear in a song when someone is off key or a wrong note is played. The same is true for a painting. If you paint most of the painting with all soft high key colors then paint one element that is screaming in intensity, you’ve just painted a sour note. Make a decision in the concept stage what your harmony or key that you will be painting in is going to be.
Example: painting that has a harmony with intense color.
Example: harmony with softer colors.
The most often question asked by students is also the most irrelevant. “What color are you using?” Don’t ask yourself what color is it. Ask yourself what value is it? What temperature is it? How bright or dull is it? These are the three questions that constantly go through my mind as I paint. Am I too light or too dark, am I too warm or too cool, and am I too bright or too dull? Whether you paint an orange with a pure orange or with a yellow orange isn’t as important as that you have your value/temperature/intensity relationships correct.
9. Paint what you love.
I can’t over emphasize the important of painting what you know and what you love. I love my flowers. I grow all the flowers I paint. I have a connection to them. I have cared for them and they bloom for me. When I go out to my garden its as if they all shout “Paint me, Paint me!” I can paint a pig if I want to but I’m not really into pigs so when I paint one you can feel the lack of emotional attachment to it. There are many technically perfect paintings out there but they lack emotion. I would rather look at a 100 imperfect paintings where an artist put their heart and soul into the painting than look at 1 perfect unemotional painting. Good art comes from the head; great art comes for the heart.
To see more of Elizabeth’s work, please visit her website. We are grateful to have generous artists sharing their experience and knowledge with us. Please visit their websites, facebook, etc. and thank them.
This week Greg LaRock is our Ask the Expert. Greg is a member of LPAPA, AIS, ASMA and an artist member of the California Art Club. He has participated in many plein air events such as Maui Plein Air Invitational, Florida’s Forgotten Coast, Door County Invitational and has won numerous awards including the Grand Prize at Plein Air Easton. He lives in Newport Beach, California and is one genuinely nice guy.
When I’m painting Plein Air, how do I edit everything I see in order to create a good composition?
Magic! … well not really. Most of it is hard observation over a long period of time and lots of thought before I commit to a scene.
I believe a painting should be built from the ground up. So coming up with a plan as to how I will construct the painting is my first goal.
When I arrive at a painting location, I don’t just jump at the first beautiful view that presents itself. I’ve learned long ago that taking my time will result in a better painting. I walk around with a viewfinder and look at the area from many angles and when I see something promising, I start the process which goes something like this:
First question I ask myself is “is the scene about the earth or the sky?” If it’s about the sky or items in the sky area (like trees, buildings, etc. or boats in dry dock as shown in my example) then I will place my horizon below center. If it’s about the earth, then a high horizon will be drawn. Dividing the canvas in two without putting the line dead center is thought one. Next, I will start to decide how the biggest shapes in the scene will divide the canvas. Since all paintings are really just an organization of shapes, how those elements are placed in an interesting, non-symmetrical way will be the key to a good foundation. These big shapes can be divided into four or five masses that I’ll play around with. These might consist of the four light planes (as described in John Carlson’s book “Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting”): Sky, ground, slants (hills or distant mountains) and uprights (trees or structures). Thinking and seeing these items as individual units and figuring out how they will be placed on the canvas in a pleasing way. I also might change my viewpoint moving right or left, back or forth 10-20 feet to see if those masses make better patterns. When I’ve got an idea of which spot will be best, then I’ll set up.
Next, I will loosely draw in pencil those largest shapes first, being very careful as to how they divvy up the canvas. If it makes sense to extend the tree line, let’s say so that it doesn’t end in the middle of the canvas, then I’ll make it larger or shorter depending on how I see the composition. I don’t always depict nature exactly as I see it. I’ll enlarge, shrink, change, fudge or simply delete or move items if I think it’ll create a better painting.
How these first few elements are introduced are crucial. I will then decide where my focal point will be. I like to leave myself some options of a focal interest as there is usually several things in a scene that drew me to it, not just one element.
The images included show a scene I painted out in Florida earlier this year. While the scene is very complex. I’ve shown an example of how I first see it in about 5 basic elements that make up the bones of the painting. The attraction to this scene was light and dark patterns as big shapes. Once I’ve got this idea down, the rest is just execution and good drawing. Keeping in mind that every time I break up a large shape into a smaller one, it’s attempted in an interesting way. Notice how the back tree line was painted lighter than it was to create contrast for the boat. And also how I kept some of those dark trees on the far right for the contrast on the lit back end of the boat. Also adding a few of those dark notes on the other boat at the far left adds balance with the dark tree at right.
This scene was painted over three days. The first day was only figuring out the composition and completing the drawing of the boat on my canvas — all in all about 3 hours. Days two and three were completing the painting.
A lot of planning at the first stage is the key to success!
To see more of Greg’s wonderful work, please visit his website.
Kim and I want to thank Eric Bowman for joining us as the first Ask the Expert to share his wonderful insights. Eric is an award winning artist and his work can be found in collections around the world. He is a signature member of the American Impressionist Society, Laguna Plein Air Painters Association as well as an out-of-state member of the California Art Club and is represented by some of the country’s most prestigious galleries.
How do experienced artists plan a painting with multiple figures?
“First of all, multi-figure paintings need a hierarchy of position and importance, so there is a lot of forethought that goes toward that purpose (mostly in your mind’s eye) then scribbled out as thumbnails until an acceptable composition is reached. Then it is a matter of finding or hiring suitable models for reference; ideally working from live poses is best, but photos can suffice if you understand anatomy enough to avoid the pitfalls of camera distortion.
In a multi-figure composition, working from several reference photos and/or sketches, can be a tricky endeavor assembling all that information in a balanced format. The best and most forgiving way is to get all of your reference to the same scale, and then use transparent tracing paper to outline each figure/form. Once you have a simple contour line of each figure on transparent paper, you can then easily overlap them in various arrangements until you find a combination that suits you.
At this point you can now refer back to your original sketches or photographs and refine or simplify them according to how they relate to one another in the composition. For example, a prominent figure in the composition may require some close-up study of further detail before undertaking the finished painting as opposed to a secondary figure. Often, less important background figures are covered by parts of foreground figures (or other elements in the composition) and require much less information; distant figures may be entirely in shadow or silhouette, or no more than duo-toned and may be merely suggested in the simplest way. If an artist has good anatomical understanding, these figures may be completely made up from imagination without needing to shoot or draw from models. Old photographs can also assist in these smaller background poses (as long as there is no copyright infringement being made).
On the topic of photographic reference, it is wise to use your own photographs (those you composed and shot yourself) first to be free of plagiarism and second to be true to your original idea. Old photographs from another source can sometimes suffice for background fillers, but be careful to change them enough to keep them original. Also, whenever you draw or paint a study from a live model, shoot a couple of back up photos while you’re at it; you may find you need the extra details that were not captured in the live session…
Some artists like to take nothing to chance before they begin painting and will go through many stages of rough sketches, colour comprehensive studies, etc. to eliminate as many unknowns as possible. Other painters will dive in with a clear idea but less preliminary work so as to leave plenty of room for unscripted spontaneity. The latter approach may yield more problem solving during the painting process, but will often produce a more lively product in the end.
Once you have your composition thoroughly worked out in pencil, it’s time to transfer it to the canvas. There are several ways of achieving this; use an opaque projector to enlarge and trace the image; grid off both the sketch and canvas and draw it freehand using the grid lines as scale guides; or have the drawing photographically enlarged and pounce the back of it with graphite or charcoal and then pressure trace it onto the canvas. A light dusting of spray fixative is suggested to secure the line work at this point.
Now is the time to decide how you want to begin the painting process; again, there are many approaches and each painter has his or her own method. Some will begin with an overall stain and then a monochrome block-in of the prominent forms. If you skipped the color-comp sketch stage, this is very helpful in deciding how you’re going to orchestrate both your contrast and your color palette. Again, keep a hierarchy to your figures in the composition and approach them accordingly to level of finish detail, lighting, focal perspective, etc. A multi-figure composition requires a storytelling directorial approach, and each player must be well thought-out and positioned according to their importance — this will help the viewer along and keep the integrity of your multi-figure painting. If your reference varies from loose sketch to tight sketch (or photo-to-photo with different lighting conditions) it helps to work over ALL of the canvas simultaneously to retain color harmony and consistency; finishing your painting one section at a time from inconsistent references can result in a disconnected composition, separated by the individual references rather than retaining the continuity and flow of your original idea…
One to two dominant figures interacting works best for a multi-figure composition — any number of secondary and distant background figures may fill out the scene depending upon how complex or suggestive you want to be. Personally, I hate painting a cast of thousands, and would rather put the time into ‘conveying’ a multi-figure scene with as few actual figures as possible. This takes plenty of logistical forethought and placement, but can actually have a greater impact than a literal rendering of dozens of forms. In the two-dimensional world of painting, action speaks louder than words, so emphasis of movement goes far in drawing attention to the lead character(s) in the scene; whomever is playing the lead role should have the most (or the least) action compared to the rest of the cast.
Last thought; You can never have too much reference to work from (as long as it is not conflicting) so spend as much time compiling sketches and photos, props, etc. as possible to equip yourself with all the information you’ll need; less time spent hunting down last-minute information (or worse yet, making it up) results in more time spent in confident painting. Approach your canvas fully prepared and you’re much more likely to produce a successful multi-figure painting.”
To see more of Eric’s work, please visit his website.