Category Archives: Top Observations

How the Internet is Destroying Grand Art

The meaning of art on a grand scale was reinforced after a recent visit to an art museum after months of COVID-19 isolation. Having spent so much time viewing art through a smartphone or laptop, I was reminded of the impact large-scale art has when experienced in person.

The art world is in distress: we experience less and less in person, creating a disconnect between the artist’s intent and the viewer’s experience. Galleries who survived the e-commerce of Etsy and e-Bay are now being sunk by a virus. I’m hopeful they’ll return, and just maybe, post COVID-19, appreciation for the arts will increase. A silver lining. For many, the arts have sustained us during this time of isolation. Yes, even Tiger King is art: it’s storytelling. It’s like watching a car crash, but you have to hand it to those filmmakers, you couldn’t look away. All art is storytelling.

For the arts, the Internet has been a double-edged sword: democratized access to a world of art previously only seen in museums or books; but at the same time, viewing art has shrunk first to the size of a PC screen, and now further to an Instagram post on your smartphone. We experience more art, but not in the intimate form for which it was intended: personal immersion. Viewing art digitally has diminished the impact we experience standing in front a Rothko at MOMA or a Titian at the Louvré. Viewing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel online isn’t much different than looking at a cartoon. Rather than feeling enveloped by the scale of a grand Rothko, we see online instead what looks to be test color paint spots on a bedroom wall.

I am big! It's the pictures that got small.

Is the medium the message?

“It seems there is no area in our culture that is not touched, changed, even swallowed by the Internet. It’s both medium and message, mass and personal, social and solitary.”

John Battelle

If the Internet is the medium of experience, it can’t help but shape the viewer’s observation and therefore the message. The medium isn’t exactly the message, but it has overwhelming impact.  Perhaps we should create two kinds of art from the source medium of our choice (e.g., oil, watercolor, whatever): online or in person?  Today I’m painting for an online audience, tomorrow, a gallery or collector where scale matters. That’s a fundamental change to art making that most artists aren’t thinking through.

In my growth as an artist, I was progressing toward larger works—usually based on plein air paintings.  My collectors always would ask, “do you work bigger”?   But now and even pre-COVID, 99.9999% of people who see my art see it online, where scale doesn’t really matter.  Seeing art digitally destroys scale. The question of working at a grand scale is based on commerce: is your intention to create something that thousands of people will view online, or is it for a collector’s wall?  Is the art to be viewed or experienced?  I suppose this is a false choice: we need both.  As artists, working large stretches us in new ways. Tring to scale up sketches drawn from plein air or live model sessions requires artistic alchemy.

I, for one, will continue to push art to a grand scale, but I’m being driven less by medium over message, but more so because it’s a skill every artist should explore and one I want to conquer because in the end, I’m the first message recipient and the message is mine.

I’d love to hear what you think. Leave a comment.

Smoky Ventura Sunrise, oil, 12x9"
Smoky Ventura Sunrise, oil, 12×9″


Creativity in Art is Risky Business

“Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed.” Wikipedia

Creativity & Commerce

I feel lucky to live my life in two worlds: technology and fine art. This intersection has given me insight into the risky nature of the creative process.

Risk-taking is tied to commerce, otherwise, making (and keeping) money would be easy.  As a 40-year veteran of the tech world, I can say without doubt techies are risk takers. They can appreciate the past and present world but remain focused on what comes next, what hasn’t been created.

Name the risk-takers in art.  Vincent Van Gogh, David Park, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso come to mind as my favorites.  They challenged the aesthetics of their time to chart a new path, and at the same time placed commercial success secondary. Prioritizing artistic creativity over commerce can be difficult–even impossible–for many artists today to achieve. It’s a real challenge: how do we move our art forward without taking risks, especially if our livelihood depends on it?  And that’s the real issue: attempting to be financially successful while at the same time taking a commercial risk by pushing creativity in directions that the art market may not be ready for or appreciate.

How Art History Impairs Creativity

Art history has too much influence on contemporary artists as too many art buyers are only comfortable buying what they’ve seen before (as “validated”), and too many artists don’t have the confidence to create a completely new path that risks their livelihood.  These artists repeat a playbook that ensures sales, but at the expense of moving their creativity forward.  As a community, I think we have to accept that and support both artistic paths, as divergent as they are.

Here’s a test: If you were to see the Mona Lisa today in a gallery among these other contemporary works without historical context, which would you prefer?  Yes, da Vinci was an incredibly creative genius who formed new paths for his time, but new paths continued throughout history by risk takers much like him.  My concern is that we don’t have enough risk takers today (me among them).

Mona Lisa
“Mona Lisa” 1503
by Leonardo da Vinci

“Jane”, 1964 by Peter Greenham
“Jane”, 1964
by Peter Greenham

“Peter with Striped Kimono”, 2015 by Anne Gale
“Peter with Striped Kimono”, 2015
by Anne Gale

“Mother II”, 1972, By Lucian Freud
“Mother II”, 1972,
By Lucian Freud

I’d buy any of these works over the Mona Lisa.  I can hear the shouts of sacrilege now! I appreciate the significance of the Mona Lisa in the context of the time it was created, but if artists after Leonardo didn’t seek divergent paths, where would we be now?

Another Way: Become Divergent Thinkers

To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result (short video here).  Research shows there needs to be a balance between these two types of thinking, but that divergent thinking declines as we age—not through biology but societal influences and teaching methods that favor convergent thinking.

To support my theory that art history as a form of convergent thinking harms creativity, consider this NASA research and the stunning decline over time of our ability to be creative from childhood to adulthood (see chart below).  A 5 year old is almost 3 times more creative than a 10 year old, and the decline continues to adulthood (at 2%). The conclusion of the research is that children are taught to eliminate divergent thinking in order to improve on their convergent thinking abilities pushed by our education system, harming creativity in the process. Art history reinforces the wrong kind of thinking.

Creativity Scores
Source: “Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today (2000)” by George Land and Beth Jarman

Rebuilding Divergent Thinking to Create

“When you’re being creative, nothing is wrong”, John Cleese

We’re so lucky to have as a guide to divergent thinking: children.  Have you ever watched a child draw or paint?  No rules, nothing is wrong!  Negligible self-doubt or judgement.  Just experimentation. Experiment. Discover.  Oh, what would it be like to draw for the first time!  Children have strong divergent thinking skills, that is, they find their own path through intuition. In divergent thinking, their subconscious mind is primary.

Here’s an impractical idea: rather than start art education with art history–which sets up expectations for what art is “good”—perhaps we end with art history, and instead start with a “blank sheet” that forces creativity and divergent thinking.

After the basics of paint/materials handling, what if the art professor put out art materials at your desk, while in front of you stood a beautiful human being. “Make art from this” is the only instruction you’d get.  What would happen?  Without art history as context, what would students create?  I’d love to see this, but it’s impractical for a 19-year-old college freshman previously exposed to art history or what society holds up as “art.”

Building Creativity through Divergent Thinking

Through our traditional education system, convergent thinking has been ingrained in us, but it’s never too late to recover creativity by building divergent thinking skills. Some exercises to try (courtesy of Natalie Shoemaker and Saga Briggs):

  • Take a Walk. One researcher found that walking indoors on a treadmill or outdoors didn’t affect divergent thinking capability, but walkers outscored sedimentary non-walkers. Physical exercise has yet another unexpected benefit. “Part of why walking, I think, is important is it can be boring. It’s that very aspect that causes your mind to go back and revisit, even subconsciously, on what you’ve been analyzing and learning,” said Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University.
  • Be bored. With smartphones a constant distraction, too many people today don’t have the mental space for new ideas to grow (for more, see this article). Try reading the phonebook or take a walk to help trigger boredom. Let your mind wander in boredom.
  • Brainstorm when tired. Ron Friedman, author of The Best Place to Work, explains our fatigued brains are less capable of filtering out all the weird stuff, like we are during the day. He suggests finding that time when you’re tired and less focused to box off that time for creative brainstorming.
  • Fast, frequent failures. Trying multiple failing paths quickly leads to a successful path sooner. Spending 2 hours creating 10 quick studies builds divergent thinking much faster than spending the same amount of time on a single artwork.
  • Paint like a Millionaire. Art supplies can be expensive, which too often means we “play it safe.” Lately, I’ve been painting on carton (cardboard, basically) or paper treated for oil painting because it’s 1/10 the price I normally pay forcanvas panels. I feel much less invested in making a piece work and am fine with failure. Painting on a iPad is another idea. Bits are free.
  • Defer Judgement. This has been a huge hurdle for me: I’m constantly judging an artwork in progress. I find it best to—at a certain point before I think a piece is done—set it aside a few days. When I return to a piece, I see and appreciate things I didn’t see before.
  • Set aside “Play Time”. You may be balancing your time between commissions and work for your next show, but be diligent about setting aside solid blocks of time to experiment and build intuitive thinking.

I hope this post helps you think differently, and balance art and commerce. As always, I appreciate reader feedback in the comments section. I have a feeling this will generate some discussion.

Painting in a Series: San Francisco Moonrises

“Theme and variation is simply the combination into a single principle of the effects of contrast and repetition.  Once a theme is stated, it may then be given a series of restatements, each recognizably the same, though each work a variation on the theme”

John F.A. Taylor

What does it mean to paint a series?

Have you explored creating art by working a theme into a series?  Doing so can improve your skills and sales.

Over time, I’ve slowing grown to appreciate the value of painting in a series.  Perhaps a turning point was when my local art museum exhibited Monet’s series from his gardens, including his water lily pond, rose archway, gardens and iconic Japanese bridge.  It is telling that Monet focused more on serial painting after he had become successful and was rewarded with the flexibility to create whatever he wanted. He made a deliberate choice to paint this way later in life.

Unless you paint as a photo realist, you are making subjective choices in every painting.  Art is a subjective endeavor. Painting in a series that constricts the subject gives the artist the opportunity to explore subjective artistic choices to look at the subject in new ways. In this way, it builds creativity muscle.

Here are some examples of other art forms that use a serial format. You can see the value of this is pervasive.

  • Music. In jazz improvisation, a set of chord progressions is analogous to the subject in a series, and provide the context for experimentation.  Like a painting series, each improvisation performance is unique, but made consistent by a single chord progression.
  • Television. In a television series, a foundation of characters forms the basis for exploring different situations. 
  • Painting. One of my favorite series that I study often is Kevin Macphereson’s “Reflections on a Pond,” in which he paints 365 views of his pond. Jean Stern said of this book, “Kevin’s goal was for the subject to be secondary to the momentary conditions that affect it,” conditions such as weather, time of day and light.

Why paint a series?

  • Deepen Subject Understanding. There is tremendous value in reducing the complexity of making art.  Making fewer choices and focusing on decisions that matter (subtlety, color, etc.) allows the artist to explore the subject of a theme more deeply.  Series are paths to discovery, the essence of creation.
  • Foster the Eye. The challenge of discovering or inventing variations on a theme forces you to create differences within a context, such as the painting’s subject (e.g., for Monet, haystacks).  This helps the artist develop subtlety and train the eye to see new things.
  • Improving Sales. While I have no research to back this up, I think there’s a sales benefit. It’s interesting how a buyer’s thinking works.  Viewing a series, I believe they begin an internal process of judging which among the series they like best.  It simplifies their choice.  Rather than choosing between a seascape and a cityscape for example, they are given a narrowed path to make a purchase decision. Also, this kind of work demonstrates your depth as an artist, that you can see the same subject and represent it in a myriad of ways. This increases the buyer’s confidence that you have the breadth of skills to succeed long term, making you a good investment.
  • Studio Work. And finally, a series of smaller works can be a form of exploration for larger studio work.

How to paint in a series

  • Start with an Objective. There are typically two objectives: either to learn new skills (with no intention of showing the work); or developing a series with a sales objective.  For example, living in San Francisco, I’ve painted series’ around an iconic subject that I know will connect with collectors. At other times, I paint this way simply to learn the subject more fully.
  • Choose a Subject. Select a subject and create variables for exploration. For example, in this San Francisco moon rise series, the subject is the rising moon, and I’ve constrained the series by using the same aspect ration (9×12 here), same view (living room window), and proportion of sky to land.  The areas of exploration are color, weather conditions, the position of the moon in the sky and the moon’s size.
  • Rinse and Repeat. Create new variations on your theme until you’ve met your objective.

Painting in a series is a great way to explore any subject and grow as an artist. Share your own experience in comments. For a video of this series with music, click here to go to YouTube, or click the video below.

Seeking Balance in Plein Air Painting

“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.

China Cove, Oil on panel, 8x6"
“China Cove”, oil on board, 8×6″, Click for availability.

Painting with Purpose: Color Spots

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 Hawthorne.

Charles Hawthorne 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.

Color Spots Example, Crissy Field, San Francisco. This picture is a grey scale version with highlighted color spots used to seek the representation of natural light.
Color Spots Example, Crissy Field, San Francisco. This picture is a grey scale version with highlighted color spots used to seek the representation of natural light.
Finished color study of Crissy Field, San Francisco. Oil on wood, 8x10"
Finished color study of Crissy Field, San Francisco. Oil on wood, 8×10″

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.

Give it a try, let me know how you do!  Also, to capture accurate color notes, refer back to this post on how I mix color outdoors.

Variations on a Theme

I was speaking to someone on a airplane last night about the visual arts and how they relate to music. Here’s my analogy: In high school, I played jazz trombone. Key to that genre is the ability to improvise. It’s a beautiful thing to hear a musician create new music on the fly during an improvisation. What may seem to be a beautiful, but haphazard, run of notes is actually the result of playing within the composer’s written sequence of cord progressions. The jazz musician creates in the moment, but she does so based on what’s in front of her: sheet music (in a sense). The same is very much true of those artists that create variations based on a theme. The subject is the theme (sheet music) and the art is the variation (improvisation).

For me, a recent theme has been Moss Beach, here in Northern California. The series of paintings below shows how I’ve studied this area, and created variations on this landscape. The first three paintings are based on the same spot, but with different mediums–oil, watercolor–and different perspectives. The last 4 are looking in a different direction, but again, studies of the same view using different mediums and ideas. From these studies, I’m learning to record and compare my feelings for the spot so I can later determine what resonates and where to build upon–as, for example, a larger studio work.

I hope you enjoy these improvisations of Moss Beach. More to come.

Moss Beach Cove, Oil on Linen, 9x12
Moss Beach Cove, Oil on Linen, 9×12

Moss Beach Cove, Watercolor, 6x6
Moss Beach Cove, Watercolor, 6×6″

Moss Beach Study, Watercolor, 9x12
Moss Beach Study, Watercolor, 9×12

Moss Beach Bluffs 1, Watercolor, 6x6
Moss Beach Bluffs 1, Watercolor, 6×6

Moss Beach Study 2, Watercolor, 6x6
Moss Beach Study 2, Watercolor, 6×6

Moss Beach Bluffs 5, Watercolor, 4x6.5
Moss Beach Bluffs 5, Watercolor, 4×6.5″


Moss Beach Bluffs #3, Oil on Linen, 12x9
Moss Beach Bluffs #3, Oil on Linen, 12×9″

Observation 7: Value Values

“It is in the contrast of light and dark that design happens.” Helen Van Wyk

This is part 7 in my series of 10 “top observations” on painting…although I think a few more may crop up 🙂

First a definition: In art, “value” is the range of grayscale from white to black, generally thought of in a 1-9 scale (1 being white, 9 being black). It has been said that the eye can discriminate no more than 9 distinct grays. Why are values important? The root of our visual system is value, not color. We saw in grayscale before color (according to the evolution of our visual systems).

Control of values is the most challenging technical aspect of painting, at least for me. I’m continuously learning and honing this skill. Values are important for two reasons:

  • Design. A strong value structure forms the basis for a good composition/design (see “Work in Abstractions”);
  • Representing Reality. you can’t truly have fun with color unless you get the value right. I’ve had more than one colorist master tell me, “it doesn’t matter what color you paint something, as long as the value is right”. I’ve found this to be true: if you’re values are correct, the painting will “read” correctly.

When I’m having a problem with a painting, I’ll often go through the process below to determine if the values are correct. This can be done both plein air using a digital camera in the field, or in your studio on a PC.

  1. Take a digital photo of your subject, being careful to get a good balance of values–eg, center your view on an area with both darks and lights, to get a good average. This is more difficult that most realize. Cameras–even digital–tend to over-darken the darketst darks and white out the lightest lights. Taking a digital photo with the correct value balance is an art in itself.
  2. View the photo in grayscale. Most digital cameras allow you to modify your image on the camera in this way. If not, transfer the image to your PC and use photo editing software to convert it to grayscale.
  3. Take a digital photo of your painting, again, being careful to get the right balance of values.
  4. View your painting in grayscale.
  5. Compare your painting and reference photo in grayscale. Do they match?

Although I’ve included the color versions below, the key comparison to make are the black and white images, the reference photo on top, my in-progress painting below. This schene is basically a simple three-value design, with some highlights (light) and accents (darkest darks) here and there.

This is the first layer of paint–I expect to add one more. The key question I had when I decided to analyze this painting was: is the value of the light side of the bridge correct? Is the value of the cast shadow on the water correct? Reds are particularly challenging to paint in the correct value–don’t know why, but that’s my experience.

Compare the value of the distant hills with the bridge in light, bottom left of the black and white reference photo. They’re almost exactly the same. Surprising, when you see my color version, which has a distinct vibrant difference (probably due to the red/green complementary color change). Because the colors were so vibrant, it was difficult for me to tell if the red was the right value, turns out I got it right. The cast shadow of the bridge (which I think makes this painting interesting), is also the correct value when seen in grayscale. What’s incorrect–and this surprised me–was the concrete pier base of the bridge in the foreground. It’s not nearly light enough. Knowing this, I can correct the painting’s value structure and finish it off with bridge rigging and other possible detail.

Reference Photo – Color

Reference Photo – Black & White

My Painting – Color

My Painting – Black & White

Here are some of my own paintings in grayscale, to illustrate the value of a distinct blocks of value in painting to build strong design. Color versions are also available, as well as some reference photos when available.

Other resources on this topic

Observation 6: The anatomy of nature

“Nature does nothing uselessly.” Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

Have you painted the figure? If you have, you know how difficult it is. Our brains are “wired” to recognize the slight differences between people, so even the slightest error in drawing the figure can make the difference in getting an accurate likeness.

What if one ocean wave could see another?  Like us, it could easily recognize the slight differences between waves.  Can you? Waves, trees, clouds–they all have an anatomy of their own, a structure that has repeatable and somewhat predictable, but each with slight variations that make them appear unique.

As artists, just as we need to study anatomy to paint the figure convincingly, we should study the structure of the elements of nature we paint and figure out their own rules. There are few shortcuts. You can get a field guide (eg, the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees) and I found one online site field guide that was very detailed (The Virtual Field Herbarium)

Leguminosae-mim Acacia caffra
| | © Rosemary Wise

You can see in this illustration above by Rosemary Wise how the basic anatomy of one type of plant is shown. The drawing communictes clearly the components of this plant, their relative size and position.  I’ve drawn similar illustrations of ocean waves, Monterey Cypress and Eucalyptus trees. Draw enough of them and you’ll discover the basic elements.
The next step is to abstract them out to just a few gestural lines.  I recall a video made on the life of Pablo Picasso (and later found this site, which a great series of images of his that show this process–check it out!).  He drew a life-like bull, lots of deetail.  His subsequent drawings contained fewer and fewer lines and detail, until the end he could communicate a bull with just a few gesterual lines.  I followed this approach with Monterey Cypress trees.  I recognized that their tree limbs have a fairly predictable pattern. They grow downard two lengths, then up one length and repeat–and then I had it, a gesture for this tree.  This comes in handy when you’re painting outside with limited time available.  You’re not going to study each branch and paint it as is, you need stored in your memory a gestural stroke that represents that branch, that you can repeat with slight variation in your painting.
In addition to linear structure, it’s also a good idea to draw or paint value studies of common natural elements. I’ve done this with ocean waves quite a bit, learning the value of the shadow side of the wave and how it relates to flat water, and the crest. You’ll aways run across exceptions to the “rules” you’ll discover, but I can say discovering them makes life a lot easier when you’re painting plein air and have 30-90 minutes to capture a scene as it shifts in light from one painting to another.

Virtual Art Academy (my sponsor), is of the same mind, and has a course dedicated to this subject in their “Observation” section. Here’s how the course is described:

“For many types of objects such as trees, fruits, flowers, or rocks, there are certain characteristics that collectively define the ‘itness’ of that object and that differentiate it from all other objects of that type. For example, pines and cypress trees are both evergreens. Every pine tree is a different shape and every cypress tree is a different shape, yet someone who knows their trees can immediately tell which is which. This means that before you start painting a subject you need to spend a lot of time studying it (that is if you want to truly capture the essence of your subject).” Click to learn more, see the “Observation” section in the left side bar navigation.

This is installment 6 of what I plan to be my top 10 painting observations. Click here to see the others.

PS. While researching this post I came across the site”The Field Guide for North American Males“, by Marjorie Ingall. Hillarious. Here’s an exerpt:

Q. Why do males travel in packs?
A. “Grouping” is a way to avoid predators. Some guys watch for danger while others feed. You never know when a guy with a big knife is going to jump out at the Burger Barn! Also, their sheer mass may confuse the enemy. When males are together, the odds of any one male getting attacked are lessened. Also, when in a group, they can turn on a potential attacker. However, for some reason they do enjoy going to public bathrooms alone. Any female knows this is absurd.

Observation 5: Color Separation

“Think in black and white, but paint in color.” – George Post
“I want all my senses engaged. Let me absorb the world’s variety and uniqueness.” Maya Angelou

In every workshop, there are usually just a couple of things I come away with remembering forever, that really stick in my sieve of a brain. From Camile Przwodeck, I learned the concept of “color separation“. I don’t think she ever called it that exactly, but the idea is somewhat analogous to value separation: The uneven distribution of and planning of values (from 3-5, generally for me) is used to design something pleasing to the eye. In my “Observation 2: Design in Abstractions” post, I wrote about my use of Notan Sketches to abstract a scene into a limited number of values, and to keep one value dominant, the others supporting (see the Notan Sketch on the right).Just as you need to have a clear separation of values to make a design work, so too color. Just as the eye responds to abstract value shapes, it apparently does the same with color. In my recent post about the physiology of the eye, Margaret Livingstone describes our visual system in which different colors are handled by different cell types. The reason complementary colors create a sort of visual “vibration”, is because the two visual systems/cells in the eyes are actually competing with one another to see the scene. That “fight” causes the vibration. The book describes many other types of effects like this that I can see myself experimenting with for years.In practice, here’s what color separation means:

  • If you think you see two greens that look about the same, exaggerate the difference between the two, to separate them easily for the eye. For example, in this plein air sketch of ice plant in Pacific Grove on the right, to create the greens in light and greens in shadow, I used completely different base colors. For the green in light in the bushes on the left, I used Hansa Yellow and Cerulean Blue, and Ultramarine Blue and Hansa Yellow Orange (and a little Alizarin Crimson) for the shaded side.
  • Don’t use the same color to represent two different objects in a scene. For example, if I’m painting a red barn, with a pot of red flowers, I will use two different color combinations to create the two reds, with no colors in common . So I may paint the barn with an Alizarin Crimson base color and lighten with a Cadmium Orange, then paint the flowers with Fire Red and lighten with another color, such as Cadmium Yellow Medium.
  • Avoid lightening colors with white, especially if you want them to be vibrant. White KILLS color, but is very effective in a gray-day painting! Use the next lighter value and warmer color on your palette. See my previous post on gray-day vs. full-sun painting.
  • Just as I would design a value plan with a Notan Sketch, I design a color scheme with a dominant color, and then limit the number of supporting colors. For example, the painting above is basically a green dominant painting with reds a close second, followed by light pink/yellows.
  • After a basic drawing, I will often start with small color spot tests to represent each object, and see how they work together (harmonize) before painting the entire area. This is something I learned from Barry John Raybould (see Virtual Art Academy) when painting landscapes, and Jim Smyth taught this technique when painting the figure as well, in which we’d paint tiny (2″ square) color spots to represent the figure in light and shadow.
  • With a full palette of paint, and trying this technique, it’s really easy to go overboard and create a painting with no color harmony or with no color shapes that hold together to create a coherent painting. I see this a lot in florals. Although I have 13 colors on my palette (plus white and black), I won’t use them all in the same painting! If you’re a beginner and just learning how to get basic values accurately, I would not use this technique. Save it.

In summary, while you’re in the design stage before you’ve laid down a stroke, analyze your subject and think ahead about a color plan. Use color separation to create paintings with a vibrancy that will challenge the human eye.

This is the 5th in what will be 10 total “top observations” of mine as a plein air painter. Click here for an a list of the others.

Observation 4: Always a Student & a Teacher

“I am going on with my researches…I am continually making observations from nature, and I feel I am making some slight progress.” Paul Cezanne at age 67, a month before his death
“Whoever ceases to be a student has never been a student.” George Iles

I’ve noticed a few consistent traits of artists: they live a long time; they’re always learning; and willing to share what they know freely. The master’s I’ve met have stressed that they’re still discovering new things and pushing themselves, always studying. They have great humility. You’re either the type of person that loves a constant challenge or one who wants an “end point” to your artist journey. If you’re reading this post, you’re likely the former.

I think accepting risk and change is critical to learning. You need to work out of your comfort zone. No painting should be so precious that you’re unwilling to trying something new and push it to the point of failure. If you feel you’ve painted someting wonderful that you don’t want to ruin, remember: if you did it once, you can repeat it. Take that personal masterpiece and be bold. Add that color you think is too far afield, or that bold stroke that says more than a dozen smaller. Be fearless! It’s the best way to learn.

I noticed this fearlessness in Kevin Macpherson. The first time I watched him paint was at Catalina Island at one of the PAPA events. He was easy to find as he had quite a crowd around him. I recall he was painting the Catalina Yacht Club, struggling with the American flag over the harbor. He painted a few bold, fearless strokes that simply didn’t work out. He got out his palette knife and scraped off the flag and did it again. Twice I think.

Remember it’s simply oil on canvas. Whatever you do can be removed and recreated.

Verde Artist Guild Paint-out (Stanford University campus)

Are you mentoring someone? This is something you can do online (through blogs like this, certainly) and there are sites like Hello Creativity, where you can mentor a child or sites like VolunteerMatch where you can find people searching for mentors. Paint-outs are a great opportunity to mentor. When I paint with the Verde Artist Guild, I’ll almost always take a break and walk around, offering critiques and bringing my own painting with me to ask for the same.

Did you have a great mentor, or are you mentoring someone now? How do you learn? Chime in with comments, let us know.

Observation 3: Equipment Matters

“You don’t get hung up on the scalple if you’re a surgeon. You get hung up on what the scalple will do.”Artie Shaw
All group painting activities I’ve been involved in has included discussions about equipment. Everyone is always checking out everyone else’s setup. We all face too many obstacles when creating art, so don’t add another one–especially when it’s under your control–by not considering carefully your setup. There are endless ways to configure your studio or plein air kit, and not everything I do will be right for you, but here are some things I’ve learned:
  • Consistent paint quality. Even while a student (I still am!), don’t buy the so-called “student grade” paints. They’re somewhat less expensive, but you’ll pay for it in frustration and poor quality results. When you’re learning, you need to learn with the materials that you’ll paint with for a life time. Whatever brand of paint you choose, when you know you’re happy, stick with it. Most of my paint is by Classic Artist Oils. They are incredibly cheap in large quantities (10 oz “guns”) and used by many masters, including Ken Auster and Ovanes Berberian. I do use Gamblin occasionally (especially their mediums, which I love). Their Permanent Alizarin is allegedly the only true permanent Alizarin Crimson on the market.
    • Are “Student Grade” Oils really cheaper? I did a quick price comparison using the Winsor Newton prices on Dick Blick vs. Classic Artist Oils. Even with a sale running right now at Dick Blick (far below retail prices), the high quality Classic Artist Oils rival Winsor Newton’s WINTON student grade. Eg, For Ultramarine Blue, the price per oz was: WINTON: $2.13/oz; Winsor Newton Artist Oils: $4.90/oz; and Classic Artist Oils: $2.40/oz. So even while on SALE, Winsor Newton’s Artists Oils cost double the price of Classic Artists Oils and comparable in price to W/N student grade WINTON oils. It pays to buy in larger quantity.
  • Your easel is your foundation. Easels can be the most difficult decision you’ll make for outdoor painting. I use OpenBoxM for small kits that I take hiking, and a Soltek easel for larger works outdoors that don’t require too far of a hike. Be warned, however, Solteks break constantly. I’m currently testing a 12×16″ palette OpenBoxM easel as my primary outdoor kit. So far, so good. I’m phasing out my Soltek due to technical difficulties. If I could afford it, I may buy two like Ken Auster, who assumes one will always be in the shop while one is in working condition.

OpenBoxM Easel
OpenBoxM 12×16″ Palette Pochade, Tripod Mounted

Soltek Easel
Soltek Easel, all-in-one, but unreliable

  • Brushes with body. Flimsy brushes without enough hair are frustrating! I use only pure hog hair bristles brushes, and sometimes the synthetic/natural bristle blends by Ultrect. Brands I trust include: Dick Blick Masterstroke; Robert Simmons; Winsor Newton Rathbone and Utrecht.
  • Painting surface is objective. Of all materials, I think the surface you paint on is the most personal. I prefer a smooth surface with just the right amount of tooth. For me, that’s a double-primed linen (naturally, the most expensive!). It just “feels right”. My advice is to try everything, every surface with every combination of preparation (gesso, primer, etc). I use RayMar’s double-primed linen panels (as well as their panel carriers for storage).
  • Studio light intensity and color must match the viewers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve painted a work in my studio that I thought was perfect, only to see a dark, less intense version in the gallery or home of the collector. Just as you don’t paint in direct sunlight outdoors (because it results in dull, dark paintings when viewed indoors), you should moderate your indoor studio lighting. I tend to paint indoors with too much light, and when that painting is put in my living room (for example), it looks much less impressive. I try to get in the habit now of placing a painting I’m working on in my living room with typical nighttime “indoor light” to see how it looks.
  • Use anything and everything. One of my favorite artists to watch is Camille Przwodek. She’ll use anything and everything at her disposal to make a painting work: the end of a brush, a scraper, paper towel. No one is going to judge your painting’s quality someday based on traditional technique, it’s the end result that matters to them. So use the opposite end of the brush, your fingers, whatever you need to create the effect you need.
Here’s my “studio” set up in my garage. Someday, I’ll have have my dream studio with a crackling fireplace in the corner (far away from the solvents!), windows overlooking the Pacific ocean, spacious and with rugs and comfortable furniture. For now, it’s a cold garage I share with my jealous car.When I work indoors, I’ll usually work from either a small plein air study as reference, or from my digital photo library. When the latter, I connect my MacBook to the TV to project the image. This is MUCH better than working from printed photographs. You could alternatively paint from the laptop screen, but I prefer a larger reference.
What did I leave out? Let me know in Comments, and I’ll add to this post.

Observation 2: Work in abstractions

“A good composition can be seen at a glance”John Carlson
“Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein

Great paintings have a great underlying abstract design, typically based on 3-7 large abstract shapes of value. If you’re a representational artist, don’t fool yourself: perfectly painted detail only matters if it sits within a broader design of interesting abstract shapes. Those few big abstract shapes will make or break a painting. No amount of detail can save a poorly designed painting.

As painters, we’re at a big disadvantage in our rapidly evolving culture of shorter attention spans and immediate gratification. How much time do you give a novel before you decide to finish it? Hours, probably days. The average viewer of a painting evaluates it in seconds, and then may linger for minutes if they like it (watch people in a museum 🙂

The eye first registers the big abstract shapes, delineated typically by value differences or sometimes hues of the same value. In any case, that first impression is of shapes, not subject matter. Abstraction is hugely important to get the viewer’s eye, but you’ll keep the viewer based on the painting-within-a-painting. Think of the abstract design as the first layer and the detail, color, subject–everything else-as the ‘icing on the cake” that the viewer will enjoy once you’ve got their attention.

When I paint, I start with a notan sketch that identifies the 3-7 big shapes of value and keep each shape together by staying within the value family of the shape. I then have fun within each shape with color, texture and warm/cool, saturated/gray color. Here are sample notans where I’ve taken the same scene I tried different designs:

Here are some tips for designing a painting in effective abstractions.

  • Design a value scheme with at least one dominant value, and others subordinate in unequal proportions.
  • Divide your picture into at least 3 and no more than 7 shapes. Here’s a quick and easy exercise you can do anywhere: with a sketchpad, look at a scene, and decide where those 3-7 big shapes are, and draw them as interlocking shapes. You’ll almost certainly have to make compromises to abstract the scene, such as merging values together, but this is a necessary part of design (see notans above).
  • Limit your values. Some of the strongest designs are just 3 values. it’s really difficult to keep to a solid, limited value structure, but well worth it.
  • Here’s a tip to simplify your values: If–like me–you’re near-sighted and wear corrective lenses: slide your glasses down to look at the scene (blurring it) and view your work surface with your glasses as you look down. If you don’t wear glasses, blur your view by squinting (note this is less effective as squinting also darkens your view). I almost always paint most of my painting without my glasses on as I love focusing on accurate color and value first. It works!