Oil paint has many unique qualities, including variations in texture, from light, watercolor-like washes, to impasto strokes of full body oil. Lately, I’ve been exploring the latter, painting with a fully loaded brush that creates bold strokes of color (called “impasto”, the technique of laying on paint thickly so that it stands out from a surface).
I’ve found this technique to have many benefits: it gives painting a sculptural “presence” that reminds the viewer this isn’t a photograph, it’s made by a hand with passion; it allows for richer color and interesting edges, as the loads of adjacent paint strokes combine at the edges, creating a marbleized co-mingling of color; using impasto for foreground elements makes them move forward in the picture plain, especially if you paint the distance in a thinner wash; and finally, there’s something more about it that’s difficult to describe….I think it’s perhaps the fact that the painting’s fluid surface gives it an organic quality.
Here are a few recent seascapes painted in this vein:
For Pride month in San Francisco, I’ll be showing at both Spark Arts in the Castro and this national exhibition at the Harvey Milk Photo Center. Join me at the reception June 22nd. The works below can be purchased online now, but understand they can’t be shipped until after the show closes on July 21.
Exhibition Dates: June 22-July 21, 2019 Opening Reception: June 22nd, 2019 from 5:00 pm to 8:30 pm Location: Harvey Milk Photo Center, 50 Scott St. San Francisco
In honoring the Stonewall riots 50 years ago, Harvey Milk Photo Center proudly present the Stonewall 50 Years Anniversary Art Exhibit. This exhibit is intended for artists to showcase their best contemporary artworks focusing on celebrating LGBTQ community.
I’m proud to exhibit the three pieces below. The first has a LGBT theme, while the others are just simply beautiful paintings the center wanted to show. I really appreciate it when exhibitions like these don’t get hung up on homoerotic images, but instead embrace all the art our community creates. Thank you Director David Christensen.
To help fellow artists achieve their color goals, I’ve documented how I approached a recent painting in terms of color and composition.
I’ve taken many workshops, read many art books–but at the end of the day (at least for me), practicing the craft by covering miles of canvas is essential. It’s funny too how I’ve not really grasped much of what I was told (or read) until later in my art career. There are many skills I thought I learned years ago, but I find myself now revisiting them, developing a deeper understanding.
An essential book on painting is Charles Hawthorne’s “On Painting“. He wrote,
“Painting, is just getting one spot of color in relation to another spot…. Let color make form, do not make form and Color it.”
Sounds simple, right? If you’re a painter, you know better! I keep coming back to his advice because it’s so powerful. Simple ideas always are. I followed Hawthorne’s advice in this painting.
To get started, the first priority for me is design/composition. A strong design will attract the eye when the viewer is across the room. It will draw people in.
My first step was a simple charcoal drawing on paper, where I could adjust and experiment with ideas easily. Since the subject is architecture, there are design constraints. Unlike a cloud or seaside white water, I don’t have the complete freedom to create shapes that play well together. So for this image, the architecture needed to be solid, but I had to ensure all the components (trees, sky, etc.) supported a coherent design.
In this sketch, I thought about the big shapes and how they related to each other. I considered principles I first learned by reading Edgar Payne’s “Composition of Outdoor Painting“: creating balance among large shapes; balancing organic, loose forms (trees) with architectural elements; ensuring there’s a comfortable amount of space between primary shapes; avoiding repetitive shapes; etc. For example, I shifted the bush in the lower right of the painting leftward, so I could intersect those greens against the garage door’s complementary reds.
Next, color. Given this subject is primarily architecture, it’s a bit easier to find the right color. Flat planes like walls don’t have a lot of variation (like a tree). Even so, I approached mixing color the same way. I mix a pile of color (see pic below) for each of the major areas of the painting on the palette before I touch the canvas, one pile for an object in light, the other for the shade side of the object.
To get accurate color spots, I use a technique I’ve written about before here called “brush in front.” Also, to increase vibrancy, I started with a single color that is key to the scene, and built the rest of the painting around it. For this painting, I started with pure Cadmium Red Light for the garage door in light, and then mixed a completely different color for the door in shadow. I’ll often apply this to other paintings: start with the most exciting color, place it on the canvas, and then make all the surrounding colors relate to it.
Another point about color I’ll make here. In nature, true color in a scene is rarely duplicated across objects–unless of course the objects (tree type, whatever) are the same. Think about the hillsides you’ve seen with various types of trees and vegetation. If you observe closely, none of the colors are the same among disparate objects, so why use the same base pigments to represent them?
To make objects stand out (my goal was a sunlit-colorful design), I use color separation and avoid repeating color formulas for objects of the same hue. So, for example, the greens in the building were mixed using a different set of blues and yellows on my palette than those of the trees, and the grass was yet another combination of pigments. This becomes apparent when you look at the final painting below. See how the character of each green is distinct.
After drawing the design on canvas, I applied spots of paint to key areas where I could judge the adjacency of color. For example, if you look at the garage door and driveway, I placed the three spots together in the drawing so I could ensure they relate before painting the entire area. In the upper left, I placed the sky color right next to the tree, and so on. Placing these spots allows me to further adjust color as needed on the palette, because as Hawthorne wrote, it’s the relationship among colors that’s important. An alternative is to paint directly on canvas and then continually adjust paint there, but I find that that muddies the color. I’d rather get the color right the first time on the palette, and this mixing technique does it for me.
After making some adjustments, I filled in the drawing with paint, keeping things as simple as possible. I believe that simplicity results in a more powerful image. While I did model the tree on the right a bit with some dark and light colors, in general I kept the planes of color flat. If I’ve mixed the correct lit and shadow colors, form will happen.
I’m happy with this one. I was able to recreate the feeling I had when I saw this scene. I hope you see the same, and that you found this demonstration was useful! Feel free to ask questions or provide feedback in comments below. This painting is available for purchase here. Happy painting!
With this year’s solo show complete, it’s time to clear out my studio. This first clearance sale is focused on seascapes. I’m offering 27 paintings at less than half price–all under $100! These include very recent paintings of Carmel, Monterey, the Central Coast of California and Ventura.
These special prices are only available to subscribers of my blog and Facebook pages for one week, then the page will be available to the public. So, act soon!
As each person sat for their portraits, they told us of incredible stories of survival in the face of widespread bigotry and transphobia. Here’s what Thomasina DeMaio had to say about the project:
“It has been a joy working with my fellow artists on this Donna Personna project..she has put her heart and soul into bringing to studio not only leaders in this community of transgenders but individuals with stories and histories that changed and educated me as to who and what its all about.It has been enlightening and I feel privileged to be able to participate in documenting this incredible community. Our intention is to leave behind a comprehensive series seen through 6 different artists eyes for the public to view ,eventually in a book( fund raising for trans issues) and for the public to embrace and understand what has been in front of them for years and is not going away. Two spirit individuals are powerful, special and simply a force to be reckoned with. I will always treasure this experience and I thank each and everyone of our subjects for taking the time to come and sit for us…you made it happen!”
“Isn’t it intensity of thought rather than calmness of touch that we are seeking? And in impulsive working conditions such as these, out on site and of this nature, is a calm, well-ordered touch always possible? Dear Lord, it seems to me no more so than when on the attack in fencing.”
Vincent VanGogh in a letter to fell artist John Russell
VanGogh captures perfectly the essence of a struggle plein air painters face: balancing the heart and head in the battle to create art on the spot. When you’re painting, how do you balance the impulsiveness driven by the excitement of the moment, with a deliberative approach that substitutes intuitive painting for thoughtful—and some would say “tight”–painting? Or is this a false choice and do both?
Painting and studying with some of the best in our field inform my opinion. Of those teachers, the great Ken Auster comes to mind. In short, his approach was that you start with the head (deciding what to paint and why, designing the picture, drawing…), move to the heart (reacting, for creating the kind of expressive brush strokes and sophisticated grays he’s known for) and end with the head to thoughtfully consider the painting from an objective standpoint, and ask yourself, “is it done?” Judge it.
I agree with much of what Ken taught me about this question, but I have a slightly different although complementary take: Painting en plein air is possible through building a solid foundational of skills that make automatic as much of the process as possible in the moment.
Have you ever commuted home from work, realizing when you got there you were on complete auto-pilot, barely remembering the drive? That’s what building a skill means to me: having the most complete toolbox of artistic skills so that I can be intuitive and responsive to nature without thinking about it. I want to use my heart completely in a picture. This is my goal, but I’m not quite there yet. I’ve worked in the corporate world too many years to escape a structured, self-critical mind.
But like Ken, I do start and end deliberatively. Perhaps this is my failing, or an essential truth to live with.
This is a painting of mine that represents for me this principle. I started with a careful design—especially large shapes, light and shadow—and switched to a complete intuitive state (athletes call it “the zone”). I skipped the evaluation, self-judgment phase until the next day. I’m glad I did. I like it just as it is.
On the way to and back from my recent solo show in San Francisco I stopped at Pacific Grove (and other spots) to paint plein air, capturing natural light in what was a beautiful week. I hope you enjoy these new works. All available online unframed (reach out to me if you’d like a price quoted for framed works).
To be honest, solo shows are a bit stressful (and a lot of work), but everything went so well! Thank you to all who were able to attend in person, and the messages from many on social media commenting on my work. Perhaps I’ll do this again next year, but in the meantime, Spark Arts in San Francisco continues to represent me, as well as the Buenaventura Art Association gallery in Ventura. Also, a heads-up that I’ll be exhibiting portraits of local San Francisco Trans community members, opening May 11. I’ll post about that soon.
The problems most growing artists try to solve often boils down to a lack of singular purpose. For example, a common question plein air painters ask is, “how much time should I take seeking a location to paint?” I’ve been there, all too often taking longer to find a scene than painting—a frustrating experience I know many of us share.
Seemingly simple questions never have simple answers, but the solution depends on the goal for going out: are you out painting today to work on a particular technical skill, like color or drawing? To prepare for a show? To commune with fellow painters? Do it all? When I go out, even though like anyone I’d prefer to be inspired by a scene, I: choose a goal; quickly narrow my visual choices to achieve that goal; and then focus on it alone.
The most common goal for me is understanding natural light, and with that, accepting the constraints of plein air painting. Most of the time, we only have about 90 minutes to finish a picture before the natural light shifts to the point where the scene has changed enough to require a new start. The skills I’m most focused on is composition and color—and sometimes just one of the two. I try not to expect too much from one 90-minute painting: draftsmanship, color, selling, or winning a competition (or “likes” on social media).
Plein air painting is
an essential tool for understanding natural light. When I judge a show, I
can easily distinguish between a painting that captures natural light and one
where the artist spent too much time and “followed the light” too far, for
example, spending 3 hours on a scene where the light has moved far past the original
light moment. To illustrate this, I’m sharing two plein air studies where I had
the singular purpose of capturing the effect of light. Capturing light can be achieved
by mixing small, exact color spots. I learned this from reading Charles
understood how to capture natural light through color spots. If you’re a
plein air painter and haven’t read “Hawthorne
on Painting,” by Charles Webster Hawthorne, you’re missing out! Buy his wisdom immediately! He describes an essential truth in painting
in general, but especially true of plein air,
“Painting is the mechanics of putting one spot of color next to another. That’s the fundamental thing.”
This is a simple, essential truth often missed by painters who expect too much from a single painting session.
Here’s a color spot example. I was out on a beautifully clear day in San Francisco, a city where subjects to paint are endless. I ended up at a favorite, Crissy Field, where I could have painted architecture (including the Golden Gate Bridge), beachcombers, rocks and surf, long city views, hillsides, etc, but I was struck immediately by the dramatic color of this building.
I started a color notes journey by painting small color spots for each element: the main structure walls in light and shadow; roof; lawn; sky and distant bay water behind the building (see below). I didn’t fill in the broad shapes of color until each spot related first to each other. And if one color note was off (I first painted the roof too dark), there’s a domino effect and adjacent colors notes change too. In this study, I repainted the sky color spot several times after all the other spots related correctly.
To keep focus, you’ll notice the building has no windows or doors. Of course, it actually has, but painting that detail would have taken time away from my singular goal. Having captured these key colors in this study I can later paint a larger studio work that includes this detail, but there was no need to do so in the 90 minutes I took to capture color notes here.
This is another example, a Pacific Grove scene of color notes I painted last week.
My solo show at Spark Arts San Francisco will include a mix of oil and watercolor across many themes, including local city scenes, sea/landscapes, figurative and some new abstracts. Join me for the reception, April 4th, 6-9PM. Here’s a slide show of some of the works that will be shown.
I will be showing the landscapel below at the Harvey Milk Photo Center January 8-February 7 with Art Saves Lives, curated by Thomasina DeMaio. The reception will be held January 18th, with live music featuring the incredible Tribal Baroque! It will be an amazing reception, hope to see you there.
What: Winter Exhibition
Where: Harvey Milk Photo Center, 50 Scott Street, San Francisco, CA