Category Archives: Learning

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.

Upcoming Color & Design Workshop

I will be leading a 2 hour color and design workshop in San Francisco on Saturday, May 19, 10am-Noon.  It is free.  No need to bring materials, this is a 2-hour slideshow discussion. In this donation-based class, you’ll learn and discuss with other artists:

How to design a picture space

Color & design technique

Resources for learning more

Elements of color design

Optional critique, bring your work

Over 100 inspirational examples

Join us at AHF / Art Saves Lives Gallery, 518 Castro St, Saturday, May 19, 10am-Noon, FREE.  Register here on Facebook.

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″

Plein Air Convention & Expo, 2013

2nd Annual Plein Air Convention & Expo
2nd Annual Plein Air Convention & Expo

It was a pleasure presenting today at the 2nd Annual Plein Air Convention & Expo!  If you were not able to attend, here are my slides.  In the presentation, I show how social media can either be a distraction or  help you reach fine art collectors and build your career.  Enjoy!

 2/16/2014 Update: I’m now conducting my own research about how digital marketing helps artists succeed. Here are related slides presented at the California Art Club Winter Symposium.  You can contribute to this research by taking a short survey.  Thanks!

Download slidesMicrosoft Powerpoint, or Adobe PDF.

 

Presented at the 2nd Annual Plein Air Convention & Expo, 2013, Monterey, CA
Presented at the 2nd Annual Plein Air Convention & Expo, 2013, Monterey, CA

 

The whole art: San Miguel de Allende

I just returned from one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended, with Frank Gardner in San Miguel de Allende.  What made it great?  It was a “whole” experience: painting (yes, of course!) and great insights from Frank, but what it made it extra special was the food, music, culture and the unbelievably welcoming vibe of San Miguel de Allende.

While there was always the threat of scorpions repelling from the ceiling (see New Adventures of the Ginger Gringo blog), Casa Santa Ana was a great home base for the class. We had the option of painting from the roof (first painting, below) or interiors in the casa.  Frank also took us out to a couple of ranches during our stay (see slideshow below).

This trip is on my calendar for next year.  Enjoy!

San Miguel de Allende, Oil on Linen, 8x10
San Miguel de Allende, Oil on Linen, 8x10

Sunset, San Miguel de Allende (March 10, 2012), Oil on Linen, 8x10
Sunset, San Miguel de Allende (March 10, 2012), Oil on Linen, 8x10

Wall in Shadow (Holly's Place), Oil on Linen, 9x12
Wall in Shadow (Holly's Place), Oil on Linen, 9x12

White Sofa, Casa Santa Ana (San Migue de Allende), Oil on Linen, 12x9
White Sofa, Casa Santa Ana (San Migue de Allende), Oil on Linen, 12x9

Pink Chair, Casa Schuck (San Miguel de Allende), Oil on Linen, 12x9
Pink Chair, Casa Schuck (San Miguel de Allende), Oil on Linen, 12x9

Potted Flowers (Casa Santa Ana), Oil on Linen, 12x9
Potted Flowers (Casa Santa Ana), Oil on Linen, 12x9

Here’s a slide show:


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Looking forward to 2012

As this year winds down, I’m starting to think about painting adventures next year, which currently include a week-long workshop in San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) with Frank Gardner (Mike is coming, too!) and the first Plein Air Conversion in Las Vegas, where I’ll be speaking about marketing + art. I have arranged for my friends and colleagues to receive a special $100 discount on registration using the code PACET.

I think I will continue to mix watercolor and oil (not in the same painting!) as I continue to learn from both.   I hope your 2012 is filled with art and adventures to your liking.  Happy New Year, everyone!

San Miguel de Allende (Mexico)
San Miguel de Allende (Mexico)

Studying watercolor

Painting in watercolor is SO different from oil.  It’s a real challenge, but I’m enjoying it.  I decided to take a short break from oil painting to learn a new medium.  I’m sure I’ll return to oil soon, but enjoying the immediacy and delicacy required to paint watercolor.  Enjoy!

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Painting Demonstration

After a great plein air painting trip, I’m back to the studio and focusing on the figure.  I took snapshots of my progress on this painting so you’ll be able to view as a demo on YouTube.

I know this is an unusual composition, but I like that.  This was a great study in warm colors (hence the title, “Warmth”).  One of the key objectives I had was to represent warm/cool warm colors, and find a way to have the figure stand out from the rocks behind.  It’s a figure, so of course it will always stand out visually, but I also wanted to use color to accomplish the same objective.  I typically do that through “color separation” (which I first wrote about on this blog in 2007). The basic idea is to use completely different colors from my palette to represent a color of the same hue family and value.  For example, to separate the color of grass in shade and light, each of those two mixtures will have different blue and yellow mixtures (eg, green in shade might be Ultramarine Blue + Yellow Ochre, while in light it might by Cerulean Blue + Cad Yellow).  Both make green, but the fact that different base colors are used to mix each helps further separate light from shadow.

In this painting, I kept his flesh in shadow based on Mars Violet, while the base for the rocks was Alizarin Crimson.  This was also a fun study to do in terms of brushwork. I was able to get the contrast I wanted by keeping the rocks loose and free-form, while the draftsmanship of the figure is tighter (too tight, actually, I’d love to be able to paint a figure as loose as Dan MacCaw.  Someday!  The other challenge in this painting was representing the direction of color of light.  There’s a cool reflection from the sky in his hair and chest for exmaple, and a very warm reflect light coming from the ground to his chest and parts of his face.  That’s always fun to paint!

You may see a larger studio version of this painting as it’s one of those studies that resonates with me.  What do you think?

"Warmth", Oil on Canvas, 9x12"
"Warmth", Oil on Canvas, 9x12"

Here’s the YouTube video demonstration:

 

Painting Day in Asilomar

I had a week off and spent the time painting from Carmel > Big Sur > Ragged Point > San Simeon.  It was a wonderful week focused on painting!

In these two studies (painting at Asilomar, just north of Carmel) I was focusing on the use of dark transparent colors to represent the ocean.  click on the paintings to see the detail.  Notice how the use of transparent Ultramarine Blue gives it a nice watercolor-like glow. Even though it’s a dark color, it reflects the white board underneath, so it gives it the feeling of both being dark and light at the same time.  To create the reflection of light on water, I wiped away more of the paint to show the white ground, rather than paint a second color on top.  BTW, pure Ultramarine is too intense to represent the Pacific, so I deaden the color, generally with a Cad Red, or sometimes with Gamblin’s Chromatic Black–a great transparent Black that will reduce the chroma of any color.

Asilomar Beach Study #2, Oil on Linen, 8x10
Asilomar Beach Study #2, Oil on Linen, 8x10

Asilomar Beach Study #2, Oil on Linen, 8x10
Asilomar Beach Study #2, Oil on Linen, 8x10

Big Sur Mountians

Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.
Henry David Thoreau

One of the challenges I (and I know many other landscape painters face) is learning how to simplify.  Capturing the essence of your subject with as few marks or shapes as possible makes for a strong design (one you can read across the room) and in general makes a stronger statement.  I love this example of how Picasso evolved the drawing of a bull from a detailed representation to just a few lines.

To work on this skill, I selected a reference photo with as few shapes and color variations as possible.  This painting was done from a reference photo I took in Big Sur, CA.  Notice in this study how there are very few shapes and only about 7 main color mixtures.  I could have rendered this more fully and modeled the clouds or other shapes, but I think (at least for this composition and study) it would have detracted from the impression.  Of course, this is also somewhat a matter of personal taste.  It fits the bill for me, as I strive towards more abstraction in my work. Simplification is part of that path.

Big Sur Mountains, Oil on Linen, 12x9  (Big Sur, CA)
Big Sur Mountains, Oil on Linen, 12×9

 

Palm Canyons Shadow Study

I used a reference photo of “Indian Canyons” park in Palm Springs, Ca to study shadow color.  The color of shadow on a surface is influenced by it’s local color, as well as the environment: objects facing the sky tend to have bluer shadows than shadows that don’t reflect the sky. A good area of the painting to observe is the top left quadrant.  The large boulder there has a striking blue shadow.  The color of the rock is near white (with some blue in it), but the reason the blue is so strong is the influence of the sky.  That sky color reflects into the shadows.  Compare that top shadow with the shadow on the left of the boulder, as it hits the river bed. There are several shadow colors there.  The side of the rock is a warm shadow,  it doesn’t face the sky plane, but instead has warm palm tree leaves to reflect. Yet the side also takes on an orange hue reflecting from the water below it.  That same cast shadow of the boulder’s left side hits the water, and and a smaller boulder behind.  That small rock is facing the sky at an angle, so has a deep blue shadow.The cast shadow on the water is more violet, as it is not getting as much sun as the top of the rock.

Indian Canyon Shadows Study, Oil on Linen, 11x14
Indian Canyon Shadows Study, Oil on Linen, 11x14

Tucson Trail

Revisiting the colors of the desert landscape.  I had some trouble with the distant shadows, and kept alternating darker/lighter.  This photo seems to show them lighter than they appear in life. In the end, the distant shadows are probably a bit too light, because when I removed color from this image to make it black & white, the shadows and light of the hills appear the same value.  It’s interesting to see how color temperature can telegraph shadows as well as value. I guess that’s where the colorists of the Henche School are coming from.

Tucson Trail (AZ), Oil on Linen, 11x14
Tucson Trail, Oil on Linen, 11x14